Sex Influences A Dog's Likelihood Of Winning In Dog Shows

  • 10/01/2019

t seems that every week the news media reports a new story, survey or research finding which demonstrates how society places women at a disadvantage. Studies show that women receive less pay on average, are promoted more slowly, and win fewer prestigious awards. Of course, those studies are all about human females; hence I was surprised when a new study showed that sex was influencing the outcome of dog shows. I am not referring to the sex of the conformation dog judges, nor the sex of the dog handlers, but the sex of the dogs themselves who are competing in the show.

This new study comes out of Australia. The team of researchers was headed by Bethany Wilson from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney. They gathered data on 1,080 dogs from 12 different breeds (varying in size and popularity), which had competed in the 18 conformation dog shows that they analyzed.

Before I go any further it is important that you know a few things about how conformation dog shows, such as the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show or Crufts are judged. These shows are not just a beauty pageant for dogs. The ultimate object of a dog show is to assess the dogs' ability to produce quality purebred puppies that will hopefully improve a particular breed. In a conformation dog show, the dogs aren't being measured against each other, although it looks that way. They are actually being measured against a standardized ideal of how the breed should look, move, and behave.

Each dog breed has a parent club, which is a national level organization that provides education and resources pertaining to their chosen breed. These parent clubs create a "standard", which is a written description of the ideal specimen of that breed. The breed standard may describe some very specific physical traits, such as height and weight, coat characteristics and colours, eye shape and colour, ear shape and placement, tail attributes and carriage and more.

Before a person can be allowed to judge a particular breed they must undergo training and various tests and examinations. Most judges recognize that this requires them to be a lifelong learner, and many judges belong to professional study groups and attend seminars and workshops which help them to recognize the ideal characteristics of the various breeds. It also allows them to be aware of modifications of individual breed standards that may occur from time to time. It was explained to me by a member of a committee which evaluates dog judges for the Canadian Kennel Club that there are about 200 criteria which are assessed in North America while more than 400 are used in Europe. That means that judges have a lot of things to consider when they are looking at a particular dog in the show ring.

While some standards can be very specific, others can be rather general and leave much room for individual interpretation by judges. For example, judges are called upon to evaluate a variety of nonphysical characteristics. These may vary from breed to breed. For example, some herding dogs are required to show alertness and intelligence. Other breeds are supposed to show confidence and a lack of fearfulness. Some individuals in the Terrier group's are supposed to show a degree of feistiness, and so forth. This cluster of more amorphous judgments permits a certain degree of leeway which may affect the ultimate outcome of each show. Every judge must apply his or her interpretation of how well a particular dog matches the breed standard, and add it to the performance of that individual dog on that given day in the ring, in order to decide which dog is the best in the group of being judged. Furthermore, all of this must be done within approximately 2 minutes which is roughly the amount of time allotted to each dog in each class.

This is a difficult job (I know that I could never do it), and with so many moving parts there is always the possibility that a dose of subjectivity and even some biases (in the form of personal preferences) might creep into the selection of winners in any show.

The sex of the dog does not play a role in the early part of the show judging since males compete against males and females compete against females in the various classes. However, once the best male and female dogs have been selected they are entered into the ring along with a set of other dogs who have already received their championship titles, and these then compete for the title of "Best of Breed". It is at this stage of the competition that males and females compete against one another, and it is, therefore, this aspect of the dog show competition that the researchers focused upon.

The next level up in a conformation dog show is the "Best in Group". This is where all of the dogs who have won Best in Breed in a particular group on that day will compete against one another. Thus a hound, like a Beagle, will find itself in the ring with all of the other hounds including Afghan Hounds and Greyhounds etc. Again, we are looking at a mixed-sex competition and once again the research finds a male advantage. Here it is considerably larger with the males winning "Best in Group" or "Runner-Up Best in Group" nearly 4 times more frequently than females (78.9% males versus 21.1% females).

The reason for the male advantage in the show ring is not clear to this research team. They tentatively suggest that this may not be a particular prejudice against female dogs on the part of the judges. It is possible that the judges are observing the breed standards without bias, but that these breed standards were inadvertently written with male dogs as the ideal version.

There are other possible reasons that do not involve overt sexual discrimination. In most breeds, the males are slightly larger and are often a bit more active. In looking at a set of dogs standing side-by-side in the Best of Breed ring, that would mean that the male dogs would stand out a bit more than the female dogs, who might look a bit more "wimpy" in comparison. Furthermore, when females come into heat twice a year, they often "blow their coat", meaning that they shed a lot of their normal fur. This does grow back so that the female will eventually have a full coat, but that still means that for several months of each year their coat will appear to be skimpy in comparison to that of the males. This thinner coat may negatively affect their appearance if they are called upon to compete in the show ring too soon after they have come out of their season.

I doubt that dog show judges are consciously trying to impose some sort of "glass ceiling" on female dogs, or are consciously discriminating against them. Nonetheless, the outcome of this research suggests that female dogs may be at as much of a disadvantage in the show ring as female humans are in a number of careers and award competitions.

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