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Bitch or dog – what makes the best gundog?

Does it matter whether you pick a bitch or a dog as your shooting companion?

German wirehaired pointer

Few dogs are tougher than a male German wirehaired pointer, but it's mostly down to personal preferences

SEX, WHETHER WE like to admit it or not, dominates our lives in many ways, not least when we come to choose our future shooting companion. For more than 30 years I’ve only owned bitches, which you might think indicates a strong preference for females, but really it’s just that, as my first English springer was a bitch, it’s been easier to stay with that gender ever since.

A good dog can’t be the wrong sex

Many people find that, for whatever reason, they get on better with bitches than they do with dogs, while for some it’s the other way round. For the most talented dog trainers it seems to make no difference. Just as a good horse can’t be a bad colour, so a good dog can’t be the wrong sex. I attempted to do research of my own, looking at successful handlers and the sex of their dogs. At first a pattern seemed to emerge that men preferred bitches and women preferred dogs, but my final results were inconclusive.

Male Labrador gundog

Male Labradors appear to have an advantage in the IGL Retriever Championships

I have a small library of books on gundogs and gundog training, so I thumbed through a few of these volumes to see what advice I could find. Somewhat surprisingly, Peter Moxon doesn’t discuss choice of sex in his Gundogs: Training and Field Trials (Quiller, 2010), an unusual omission in a book that covers just about everything else to do with gundogs.

Guy Wallace, writing in The Versatile Gundog (the Sportsman’s Press, 1998), considers the subject both concisely and well: “Dog or bitch? If you already have dogs or bitches at home, it makes life easier to stay with the same sex. The adage ‘A bitch is a nuisance for six weeks a yearwhile a dog is a nuisance every damned day’ still holds true and generally a bitch works to please her owner while a dog works to please himself. However, with pointers, a dog can stand a lot of tough work better than a bitch.”

Wallace goes on to remark: “Strong characters generally get on better with (male) dogs while more sensitive people usually click better with bitches. Equally, many women get on better with (male) dogs while many men are better suited by bitches.” It really comes down to a matter of personal preference, but when the new dog is going to be both a pet and a working gundog you might well find that the choice is a matter for family debate.

springer spaniel bitch

Bitches dominate in springer trials: since 1980-81 only seven dogs have triumphed

Bitches command higher prices

A financial consideration does enter the equation. Look at the gundog marketplace here and you will see that bitches invariably command a higher price than dogs. The premium may be only £50, but if your budget is tight then it’s an extra consideration. The higher price reflects greater demand for bitches. In theory, most litters contain a 50:50 mix of sexes, but all those I’ve bred have contained more dogs than bitches. This may be just a case of bad luck, but it doesn’t seem to be unusual.

While Wallace mentions that dogs are usually tougher than bitches, it doesn’t necessarily follow that bitches are less hard-going as hunters than dogs. In the world of spaniel trialling, bitches dominate. When Helmsway Heath won the English Springer Spaniel Championship in 2013-2014, he was the first dog to do so since Jim Clark’s Moonreed Flush 11 years before. Since 1980-1981, only seven dogs have triumphed in the championship, and the last male domination was back in the 1970s, when there was a five-year period when a dog won every year.

By contrast, in the world of retriever trialling, dogs enjoy much more success. The first-ever winner of the International Gundog League Retriever Championship in 1909 was a bitch called Dungavel Phoebe, but since then more dogs than bitches have won the title, and a bitch hasn’t won since Craighorn Abby in 2008. In The Best of the Best (Pernice Press, 2013), Graham Cox comments: “If winning is the aim… then qualifying a dog is slightly more advantageous than qualifying a bitch, though perhaps not significant enough to convince handlers substantially to change any preferences they may have.”

The advantages of spaying

After 35 years of owning bitches, my only change in attitude is to neutering. I was reluctant to have my first bitches spayed, but I now wouldn’t hesitate to do so with any bitch that I wasn’t planning to breed from — or any that I wasn’t intending to have any more litters from.

My experience of spayed bitches hasn’t shown any noticeable changes in personality or behaviour, while neutering has been proven to greatly reduce the risks from lumps and mammary tumours. In addition, you have the convenience of a dog that will be able to work throughout the shooting season without an unplanned interruption. Bitches do have a knack of coming into season when it’s least convenient.

There are no hard and fast rules as to when to spay or to castrate, but there’s a growing trend for these operations to be undertaken before the animal reaches its first birthday. With bitches, the safest advice is to wait until after she has had her first season. With a dog it’s wise to follow the advice of your vet, but do remember that earlier may well be better than later.