Is there a Mars/Venus divide in the way men and women approach dog training? Any answer to that question is an exercise in speculation. We can’t turn to research results because there aren’t any, and gender generalities aren’t universally applicable. As Ken Ramirez, executive VP and Chief Training Officer of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, put it, “As soon as you make one generalization, there will be dozens of examples that are exceptions.”
Still, many professional trainers have observed some general differences between the ways women and men train dogs. We must, however, be clear about what these differences mean. They do not mean that all women train differently than all men—there is a lot of overlap between the sexes. Gender may predict tendencies, but it is not absolute.
So, what are these tendencies?
According to Ramirez, “Men are often more forceful and demanding when they train, while women tend to be more gentle and more emotional. However, I see that far less often in the professional training world than with the general pet owner.” Laura Monaco Torelli, founder and director of training for Animal Behavior Training Concepts, has observed a similar trend. “With my client base, the men tend to be more discipline- based.” She finds that it’s common for men to jerk back on the leash and say, “No!” while women are more likely to try something else first, and then increase the tension in their voice or equipment.
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Generally speaking, men and women have the same training goals: improve off-leash recalls and loose-leash walking, eliminate counter-surfing, housetrain. Beyond those genderneutral goals, however, Ramirez notes that “in the pet world, men owners often seem to mainly care about obedience behaviors, while women are often interested in more than just basic obedience and will continue their dog’s training far beyond basics.” Lauren Hays, owner and founder of Austin Canine Consulting, Inc., says that women are often more specific in their goals, and more detail-oriented.
Just as many professional trainers observe differences in goals across gender, they see predictable differences in expectations. According to Torelli, “Overall, men want a quicker result than women. They are more often timeline- and results-oriented, and ask, ‘When will this behavior be finished?’” Hays points out that it’s more common for her male clients to have very high or even unrealistic expectations, thinking that the dog should perform a behavior “because he’s a dog and he should want to please me.”
She adds that more men than women expect a dog to be 100 percent fluent on a command without too much effort on the part of the trainer. Men are more likely to say, “He knows what to do, but he’s choosing not to do it.” In contrast, Hays says, women are tend to focus on their own responsibility, taking the attitude, “I know he’s not doing it, but I know it’s because I’m not doing something right.”
Torelli has noticed that male clients often want to use regular food rather than higher-level treats, but once they’re sold on the high-value goodies, they’re more likely to go for volume—to use big pieces—and need to be reminded to use tiny bits. They are also more likely to ask, “How quickly can we phase out the treats?”
Hays finds that women are willing and happy to lavish petting and praise on their dogs, but men often need to be reminded to do that. On the other hand, she says, women sometimes need to be reminded to save praise and attention and a “hot-dog party” for when the dog has made good choices, and to cut their chatter to their dog during a training session or walk. Of course, as Torelli notes, “It’s more culturally acceptable for women to sweet-talk in public,” and that could account for some of this difference.
In my own work, I’ve noticed that men are more likely (and quicker) than women to follow suggestions to use play as reinforcement. If I observe that a dog is highly motivated by toys and play, I will incorporate play into the plan to help the dog, advising clients to use it as a reinforcement or a distraction, to enhance the relationship between themselves and their dogs, for exercise or to teach new skills.
For example, if I propose that my clients begin a play session when the dog responds properly to a cue or chooses to do the right thing rather than bark/ lunge or chase something inappropriate, a majority of men are enthusiastic and ready to try it as soon as I mention it. Fewer women react that way, though a short demonstration of the effectiveness of play in inf luencing behavior leads most women to come on board as well.
Dog training is a skill that, like many others, is acquired through education and practice. So, it’s not surprising that general tendencies in the way men and women approach any new skill show up in dog training as well. Hays sees a pattern parallel to what a ski instructor once told her about men and women on the slopes: Men focus on going fast, learning enough to get down the hill first. Women focus on details and techniques. Men are quicker to take the attitude “I’ve got it from here,” while women tend to want more information on how to keep improving. According to Hays, her clients display this differentiation as soon as they’ve made enough progress to realize that training is going to help their dogs.
In the realm of professional dog trainers, women dominate in canine sports and family dog training, but men make up the majority in police work and the military. Traditionally, the areas with more women trainers have used gentle training methods, with more positive reinforcement (by men and women), whereas the realms dominated by men are likely to incorporate force-based, high-discipline methods, regardless of the gender of the individual trainers.
Ramirez notes that it’s hard to know the cause of these distinctions. “Is the difference in training styles because of the male- or female-dominated discipline, or is it the type of training that has dictated training approaches? Or is it that different training approaches attract men to certain types of endeavors and women to others? I believe training approaches have more to do with historical practices.”
Hays says that in her sport—field trials—the old style “‘boot, shoot and electrocute’ [kicking, pellet guns and cattle prods] was really a horrible training method. A lot of women were not okay with doing that to a dog, and a lot of men resisted, too.” More humane methods, including using markers such as clickers have changed the field. While more women are doing field trials than in previous decades, the majority of trainers are still men.
Lest we forget, training involves two individuals, the trainer (human) and the trainee (dog), so dogs’ natural responses need to be factored in as well. Dogs respond differently to men than they do to women, and that also affects training. Men and women are dissimilar in many ways, including smell, vocal tone, movement and posture. All of these differences can influence training, as dogs are extremely responsive to visual signals and body language.
We know that dogs are sometimes more attentive to men, and yet more likely to be fearful of them. That focus and that fear can affect training approaches both indirectly via their impact on the relationship between the two individuals, and directly, by making a dog either more responsive or too fearful to respond predictably.
I asked each of the professional trainers I interviewed if he or she approached clients differently based on gender. Across the board, the answer was a resounding No! Hays: “Whether it’s a male or a female—dog or person—it’s up to me to figure out how best to teach them. That’s based on the individual.” Ramirez: “No, I do not approach men or women differently. I do tend to approach each individual differently. The reasons people want to train are always very different, so I adapt my teaching style to their needs and desires and I don’t tend to make assumptions about that based on whether they are men or women.” Torelli: “There are many variables in becoming a great trainer. Being male or female is just one small part.”