Updated: Jan 2
Standing in the middle of a sugar beet field in the British countryside, watching the line of shooters and dog handlers in competition, I take a moment to consider how I came to be here. A year ago I was nothing more than a part-time dog trainer in Memphis, TN, making cold calls to respected professionals in the industry looking for an apprenticeship. Now I am a professional gundog trainer, observing a British Gundog Field Trial on the gorgeous Packington Estate, owned by the Earl and Lady Aylesford, surrounded by churches and mansions built long before own state even existed. I was sent here by my mentor to experience first-hand the tradition of shooting sports and handling gundogs, which began in fields just like these amongst the British nobility. The experience thus far has been eye-opening, revealing a sport steeped in a tradition of high standards and moral conduct – expected from every sportsman, woman, and dog.
I look around at the faces of the nervous competitors. Although, in reality, they don’t seem nervous, really. They are quite jovial, in fact. Chatting each other up, admiring each other’s new tweedy suits, and reminiscing about the best and worst of past trials. The camaraderie is a pleasant contrast from the overly-competitive nature bred into the American culture in general. (And I am, admittedly, as bad as it gets – my husband has learned that the easiest way to save on marriage counseling is to let me win at games or just not play at all!)
As my own nerves start to wear off and I begin to join in on some of the conversations with the competitors, I am a bit surprised at how welcoming they are to this American outsider. I realize that this may be due, in large part, to the number of other women in the group, who are quick to make small talk with me. In fact, I am suddenly struck that there are just as many female handlers and shooters as males. Out of the 24 competitors in today’s dog trial, exactly half of them are women. I take a minute to admire the beautiful burgundy feminine-cut shooter vest and matching game bag worn by the woman next to me (any American woman will agree it’s difficult to find ANY feminine cut shooter vests, let alone something in colors other than black or hot pink!), and ask her if it is typical to have this many women at one event. At her puzzled response, I explain that it has been my experience in the US that there are very few women in the shooting and hunting sport. Having finally peaked their interest, it isn’t long before the entire gallery is discussing the topic of gender stratification in the hunting sector.
Let me back up and introduce myself. I was not born into the hunting culture, but it found me anyway! Though I was raised in a rural town in the Mississippi Delta, my family was transplanted to Arkansas from New Jersey, where hunting is limited to hunting burgers and gathering fries. Even though I grew up with friends whose calendars revolved around Opening Day, I never really got it until I took a position as a gundog trainer at Duckhill Kennels in Somerville, Tennessee. With my background in exotic animal training as a zookeeper at the Memphis Zoo and a bit of basic obedience training, I had been seeking more experience with training dogs for the working dog sector. I found Robert Milner’s Duckhill Kennels, excited to learn training techniques for Search & Rescue canines, and found myself instead thrown into a world of duck hunters and field trial trainers. Though USAR (Urban Search & Rescue) work is still a big component of my work at Duckhill, the majority of my training revolves around providing waterfowlers with a calm, focused retrieving companion.
Nearly all of my gundog clients and colleagues are men, and the few women I encounter are playing a supporting role to their husband’s hobby. Now, with all due respect to the 95% of you reading this who are men, let me just say that the culture of hunters in America is not structured to support women in the industry, especially not a woman taking an authoritative role on anything related to the hunting and shooting sport. I have definitely had plenty of practice answering the blunt question, “What makes you qualified to train my gundog?” tinged with an heir of skepticism. Originally, I thought perhaps the skepticism was a nod at my lack of experience or gray hair, but it hasn’t taken long for me to deduce that the real reason is that there aren’t a lot of female gundog handlers in the US. My perception is that most men are concerned that their wives are too “tender-hearted” to strap an e-collar on their family pet or give him the discipline he needs to be a working dog. I’ve heard several men turn to their wives, after picking out a new lab puppy from our kennel for the family, and joke, “Now, don’t go and ruin this one by spoiling it and making it too soft to work!” After all, it takes a strong-will and a little (and sometimes a lot of) tough love to work these high-strung dogs, right? Wrong.
I work almost exclusively with British Labradors, a strain of the breed that is growing in popularity with Americans, both for their smaller size and for their calmer temperament. These are generally “softer” dogs that are less reactive and impulsive than their American counterparts. By nature, they respond very well to positive training techniques. Guess what – so do women.
Positive training techniques involve rewarding dogs for correct behavior and ignoring the behaviors you don’t want. (Or counter-conditioning a competing behavior – either way, punishment is rarely, if ever, implemented). This has been the training style of European dog handlers since the beginning of the breed. Perhaps this is why there are just as many female dog handlers in the UK as there are men. A bit of research into the history of women’s participation in the British shooting sector provides me with a bit more insight:
The shooting sector accounts for $2.5 billion of British industry. $400 million is spent on conservation as a result of shooting. In the early 20th century, there were as many as 10,000 professional gamekeepers employed by British landowners whose sole job was to rear game, raise crops, and protect both from pests, predators and poaching. Today, two-thirds of the UK countryside is managed for shooting, and there are still more than 5,000 professional gamekeepers. The point is, it’s a huge industry in Europe, not just a regional hobby.
British women have participated in the shooting sport, albeit as a minority, since the Victorian Era, recorded in notable hunts as early as 1860. In the 1890s, it became quite fashionable among high society for ladies to don customized feminine hunting garb and join the ranks of men on a hunt. Even women who felt as though hunting wasn’t ladylike would support the sport by catering luncheons on the field for all participants, making a social event of it. Later, during World Wars I and II, many Gamekeepers’ wives took up their husband’s guns to protect the crop and game, and other women took up part time roles as their assistants. Still others became hunters out of necessity to fill their stews with rabbit and pheasant. Over time, it became commonplace for there to be lady guns, beaters, and dog handlers (pickers) in any hunt and in any social circle. Today, the number of women in the shooting sector in England almost equals men (some estimates suggest 40-45% of gundog handlers are women).
In an article from the UK Daily Mail in 2011 entitled “Why Gundogs Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” John Harrison of Byrecoc Gundogs in Surrey, England, admitted that most of his clients are women. “Women are naturally good gundog handlers. It can take two or three weeks to train a man to speak softly. You can’t shout at these dogs, they bear grudges,” he says. “It’s a partnership based on love and trust.”
The article continues to share the experiences of lady handlers in England:
After 14 months’ training, Jo Haywood is enjoying her first season picking up with her cocker spaniel Billie. ‘I wanted a dog, and my husband who shoots said if I had a puppy I had to train her – she couldn’t be a lapdog. “I love it. My only concern was I wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to arrive in a pink puffa and be all blonde. I was so nervous, all I could hear was me shouting “Billie!” But everyone was welcoming and Billie did brilliantly,” Jo Haywood says of her first hunt.
Megan Keenan bought her first cocker spaniel puppy because her boyfriend wanted to get into shooting. ‘He’s at work all day so I ended up doing the training and it turned out to be me who got into it,’ she says. “Now I’m gundog mad.” *
Lady handlers quoted in this article: Jo Haywood (3), Megan Keenan (4) taken from “Why Gundogs Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from UK Daily Mail Oct 2011
It’s not that the Brits are any better at the sport than Americans, or that women’s rights in general are notably different, they just got a head start. While European fashion trends were encouraging women into hunting and riding, American women were busy picking up the pieces of life after the economic downturn after the Civil War and pre-Industrial Era. Don’t worry, though ladies, it’s our turn now. The National Shooting Sports Association claims that the fastest growing market in the American shooting sport is that of teenaged girls, and that there are 50% more women involved in hunting today than only 5 years ago. Women-only shooting clubs are springing up across the US, and I am proud to say that we are starting our own in Tennessee at Duckhill Kennels with the mission of introducing more women to the sport of gundog handling. *
It has been my experience so far that more and more American families consider their gundogs members of the family, more so than simply a one-track-mind working dog. In this way, the whole family becomes involved in the rearing and training of the canine companions, and the British model of training is perfect for this type of multiple-handler training. It’s easy for kids to follow, and much more forgiving of novice handlers. In the days of traditional compulsion training, a poorly-timed punishment can mean weeks of re-training, whereas a poorly-timed reward is easily shaped in the right direction. I am sure that there are many ‘duck widows’ that would appreciate the chance to be more involved in the sport, and I think gundog handling is a natural niche for us to fill. So, ladies, if you are interested in combining your love for your family pet with the enjoyment of the Great Outdoors with the whole family, give gundog handling a try! Look for local Retriever Clubs or women’s shoot organizations, or contact me for a schedule of upcoming seminars or classes on gundog handling, introduction to shooting, and hunter education at Duckhill Kennels in Somerville, TN!
*For more information on the newly-formed Ladies Labrador Sporting Society or to see about starting a women’s chapter in your area, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Quotes from “Why Gundogs Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from UK Daily Mail October 2011