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Why do so few female dog handlers win championships?

Female dog handlers are some of the most gifted in the business, so why does there seem to be a shortage of championship victors, asks David Tomlinson

It seems that male handlers have an advantage when it comes to trials

When I was taught to ride as a child, all my instructors were female, so from an early age I had the impression that the best riders were women rather than men. Riding is one of the few sports where men and women compete on equal terms — the list of past winners of Badminton Horse Trials, for example, proves that women can beat men in one of the most exacting and dangerous of sports. Many of the most gifted dog handlers I’ve met have been female, too. I’m not sure whether there were any female handlers in the early days of the International Gundog League (IGL) Retriever Championship. The very first winner in 1909, Dungavel Phoebe, was bred and owned by a woman — the Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon. I suspect that it wasn’t the done thing for a woman, and especially a duchess, to handle a dog in competitions in those days, so the Duchess employed a professional to run her dog for her, a Mr J Alexander. I wonder if the Duchess handled Phoebe on ordinary shoot days? I suspect that she may well have done.

By the 1920s, lady handlers were taking part in field trials, and the first to win the Retriever Championship was the legendary Lorna, Countess Howe (at the time of her win she was Mrs Quintin Dick). She went on to win the event again in 1928 and 1929, but though she had another win in 1936, this time her dog was handled for her. 

The next female handler to lift the trophy was the Hon. Lady Hill-Wood in 1933, and she repeated the feat with the same dog, FTCh Hiwood Chance, the following year. Almost 30 years later, in 1960, she won again, with a fourth and final triumph in 1964, this time handling her daughter’s dog. Only one man, John Halstead, has equalled her feat by winning the championship four times.

Only one female handler has won the IGL Retriever Championship this century


A strong contingent

Intriguingly, no other woman has won the championship on more than one occasion, while the list of winning handlers is dominated by men. Only a single female handler has won the championship this century: Tess Lawrence, with her dog FTCh Willowyck Ruff, in 2007. It’s hard to explain why there haven’t been more successful female handlers, as every year there’s a strong contingent of women who compete in the event. I hardly dare suggest that it’s because of male prejudice, though male judges are always in the majority (this year’s championship has three male judges and one female). 

One reason for the lack of winning female handlers may be the lack of professional female handlers competing at the highest level. Another is that men can tend to be more competitive than women; though, having said that, I have met female dog handlers who are as fiercely competitive as any man — but they tend to be in a minority. I have certainly met many women who are naturally gifted dog handlers, but who are quite happy to do no more than take their dogs picking-up, and have no ambitions to run their dogs in tests, let alone trials. 

When it comes to spaniel trials, the near absence of women is startling. As far as I am aware, the Any Variety Spaniel Championship (formerly the Springer Championship) has never been won by a female handler. I looked up the statistics for the past 12 championships. The only female handler to be placed in that period was Terris Sewer, whose FTCh Surely Sassy came fourth in the championship at Blenheim in 2020, the fifth time she had qualified for the event. 

I asked a spaniel-trialling friend about this. “Well,” he replied, “spaniel trialling is a bloke’s sport. Nearly everyone who trials their spaniels shoots over them too, which isn’t something that many women do. Its basis is rough shooting, which is predominately a male pastime. I’m sure many women are put off competing because it’s so male-dominated, while there’s never been more than one or two female judges. 

“It’s very different from retriever trialling: you will find that many of the female labrador handlers have no interest in shooting, but are simply obsessed with working their dogs. They never actually take their dogs on shoots, but just go on training days.”


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Impossible to ignore

Those words are his opinion, not mine, but there’s a ring of truth about them that’s impossible to ignore. We may believe trials are equally accessible to both male and female handlers, but are they? Lack of basic facilities may be one problem. Men are usually quite happy to have a pee in the hedge, but not so many women are prepared to do so. However, most field-trial secretaries would probably baulk at the extra expense of providing Portaloos. Any change in the foreseeable future is unlikely. 

My observations suggest that, generally, female dog handlers tend to be more gentle, and so are more likely to get the best from dogs that lack confidence. It is also true that some dogs respond much better to female rather than male handlers, though the converse is also true. It does seem that although handling is equal, when it comes to trials, men have a definite advantage