It’s Tough To Special A Bitch

This year, for the first time in more years than would be polite to mention, we are specialing a Kerry Blue dog.  No matter how he does by the end of the show season, it will still be easier than specialing our bitches.  In the world of conformation dog shows it has always been boys first.  Even the order in the ring is dogs first, then bitches.  The AKC has never been at the forefront of women’s rights.  There is a long history of women’s participation in the breeding and showing of purebred dogs, but admittance to the AKC’s various positions of power and influence were longer in coming. 

 In 1888, Anna Whitney became the first woman to judge a dog show in America with her assignment of 117 St. Bernards at the Westminster Kennel Club show. She would judge every year for the next seven years, but it would be 1901 before another woman judged any dog show in the U.S. In 1933, Mrs. M. Hartley Dodge became the first woman to officiate as the sole judge for Best In Show. Mrs. Dodge (Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge) became legendary in the dog show world.  It was not until 1974 that women were allowed to represent a dog club as an AKC delegate.  Among the first women voted in as delegates that year was Mrs. Julia Gasow, elected to represent the English Spaniel Club of Michigan.  Later fanciers will remember her Salilyn’s English Springers.  

There was the perception in the early days of dog showing that males were primarily considered for Best of Breed and bitches had a special award:  Best of Opposite Sex.  With the sixties came a new attitude that females of all species could do more than whelp puppies, have babies, be nurses or other support personnel.  I was raised to believe that with hard work and luck I could be a doctor or even President and our bitches could win Best of Breed.  I think a lot of exhibitors believed this, too, because more and more people started to show their bitches and some did win!  We have had several Bests in Show on bitches, in fact more than on any males we have owned.  Still, a look at the top 20 dogs among all breeds,  by sex for 2010, show that bitches make up only 40% of that group.  These top bitches were all heavily campaigned and most were shown by professional handlers.  Considering the years 2004 through 2010 bitches have been among the top 20 dogs, all breed, only 32.5% of the time.  So much for our perceptions.

At the individual breed level it is no better.  In our breed, our current number one is a bitch and she is owner handled.  Our own breed number one, breed and all breed, was also a bitch.  But most aren’t so lucky.  Currently, only 20% of the top Kerry Blues are bitches.  In some breeds you wonder why anybody would even try to special a bitch.  In Pomeranians, a very popular Toy breed, there is only one bitch ranked in the top fifteen.  In Smooth Coat Chihuahuas only three out of the top fifteen are girls.  Why is this dog domination still going on?  There are probably many theories if you pin exhibitors and breeders down.  They may tell you it’s harder to keep bitches in coat throughout the show year.  Every time they come into season they blow their coats.  This might make sense in many of the heavily coated breeds.  When a premium is placed on a luxurious coat, males will have it nearly all the time.  In both Golden Retrievers and Labradors for 2010, bitches made up only 27% of the top fifteen dogs.  On the other hand, Boxers, with almost no coat issues, rank bitches in the top fifteen 40% of the time.    

If a breeder wants a new generation of show dogs bitches must be used.  Sometimes promising girls are pulled early from the ring to be bred.  This makes a lot of sense.  A recent article in the AKC Gazette suggests that waiting to breed bitches after the age of three is a contributor to small litter size and infertility.  As people who breed our bitches late, we can attest to this wisdom.  Our Eva produced only three puppies from her first litter at age five, and Honour was never successfully bred starting at age four.  While we were proud of their rankings, we might have been prouder if our recent Best in Show had come on a dog we had bred ourselves, from one of these two bitches.  Blue ribbons are small consolation to a dead ended line and the prospect of buying a bitch from someone else to rebuild.  

The average percentage of bitches ranked in the top twenty in each of the seven groups, is a dismal 38%.  It may all come down to perception and the weakest link in the chain that takes dogs from the breed classes, to the group ring and into Best in Show competition:  the judge.  The very human being that with the point of a finger determines winners and losers.  This person is driven by a desire to choose the best dog he can find in the entry before him.  But he brings to his assignment a set of prejudices and feelings honed in his own kennel.  The exhibitors of bitches have to hope the judge doesn’t think bitches are only achievers in the whelping box.  They have to hope the judge isn’t a sucker for a thick, flowing coat or wants an animal of a size no bitch could ever be.  Male dogs exude a power and presence that is hard to ignore.  More so in some breeds than others.  The fire males in the terrier ring show during the spar is never matched by the bitches when face to face with each other.  Where the boys seem ready to take on one another in battle, the girls look alert and inquisitive.  While both attitudes are proper, human nature intervenes and more often than not boys get the nod. 

Do  breeders themselves torpedo their bitches as specials because they believe breeding is their most important function?  Listen to breeders talking and you catch a glimpse of this attitude prevalent among people who should know better.  At some shows in the South, a ringside discussion among Chihuahua breeders revealed the majority opinion about the breed was that the bitches should be the larger since they carry the puppies and the males the smaller because that would be more competitive in the ring.  Just the opposite of what the standards states regarding size. But maybe the biggest perception to overcome in this seeming inequity in the show ring is the maleness and femaleness of certain breeds.  Like some languages, with nouns deemed masculine or feminine, breeds of dogs seem either more male or more female to many people.  Many judges being among that group.  Breeds like Vizsla, Pugs and Mastiffs, both in body type and expression connote a more masculine animal.  Each has only three bitches a piece in the top fifteen.  On the other side of the coin the Standard Poodle, Pointer and Whippet with the soft sweep of their muzzles and the dreamy look from their eyes have a more feminine look and an average 64% bitches in their top fifteen.  Clearly, these subliminal qualities must exert some degree of influence on the people making the decisions in the ring.   

No matter what causes bitches to come up short on the list of dogs at the top of the win columns, the fact is they do.  Specialing a bitch takes patience and a mental toughness many people can’t sustain throughout the long show season.  For this to change, breeders must concentrate on showing only their best, most competitive bitches, with a close adherence to their standards.  Bitches entered just to finish their championships in order to legitimize their future breeding is not beneficial for anybody in the breed.  Judges who reward dogs and bitches equally should be praised and the word spread. And those who seem unable to rise above perceived sexual stereotypes should be placed on the “do not show”  list.

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