Some owners swear by bitches, others say they get on better with dogs. David Tomlinson weighs up the pros and cons to judge whether a bitch or dog is better

Bitch or dog is a question all dog owners must face. David Tomlinson considers whether one really is better than the other, or if it’s just down to personal preference.

For more on gundogs, read gundog puppy schools: training your pup or the retrieving instinct in pointers and setters.


Sex. It’s a subject no one looking for a puppy can ignore. Is it best to opt for a bitch or dog? Consult the professionals and you will probably end up even more confused than you were before asking the question of bitch or dog. Field triallers will tell you that you are more likely to win the Retriever Championship with a dog than a bitch. The last bitch to win the championship was Craighorn Abby in 2008. Since then it’s been a male-dominated affair.

At the 2015 event there were 54 runners: 34 dogs and 20 bitches. The winner was a black labrador dog, Asterix Aguzannis of Chatsworth, with dogs also taking the next two places.

In spaniel trialling the question of bitch or dog is the other way round. The winner of the English Springer Spaniel Championship in 2013/14 was Helmsway Heath: he was the first successful dog since Jim Clark’s Moonreed Flush 11 years before. It’s notable that since 1980/81, only seven dogs have triumphed in the championship, and you have to go all the way back to the Seventies for the last period of male domination, with five male champions in a row. Why retriever judges should prefer dogs and spaniel judges bitches is one of the great mysteries of the gundog world. For the handler, winning with a dog is far more lucrative than it is with a bitch, thanks to stud fees.

Not many of us aspire to run our dogs in field trials, let alone in championship events, so for most of us the choice of sex is simply a matter of preference. I’ve run bitches exclusively for more than 30 years, the only reason being that my first springer spaniel was a bitch, so it made sense to remain with girls rather than boys. For the past 20 years I’ve always kept mothers and daughters. It’s worked for me but it might not for you.


Many people genuinely believe that they get on better with a bitch or dog rather than both, and that might well be true. If you really believe that a bitch works better for you than a dog, or the other way round, there’s no point in trying to persuade you otherwise. We all do best with what we have confidence in.

I one asked a huntsman whether he preferred a hunting bitch or dogs. He explained that, as with most packs that hunt twice a week, the choice of a bitch or dog pack was out of the question, and that only the few packs that hunt three or four days a week can afford such a luxury. Captain Ronnie Wallace, perhaps the greatest of 20th-century huntsmen, maintained that he couldn’t get on with doghounds, and that when he was hunting the Heythrop it was the bitch pack that got most of the work. However, he also showed superb sport with the doghounds, which rather countered his argument.

From a purely practical point of view, bitches have one major disadvantage: they come into season at least once a year. What is more, they usually have an uncanny sense of timing and do so at the height of the shooting season, thus ruling themselves out of action. However, not all owners are sensitive to their bitch’s condition. I was on a shoot a year ago when, during the break for drinks after the second drive, the keeper’s black labrador was found tied to a black labrador bitch belonging to one of the guns (and not with a piece of string). The joke was how much the keeper was going to charge as a stud fee.


The solution to the inconvenience of seasons is to have your bitch spayed. Assuming you have no plans to breed from her, the current advice is to have the operation before her first season (until recently spaying after the first season was recommended). It is now thought that the health advantages of neutering at an early age outweigh those of doing so later.

I used not believe in spaying but, having had my entire bitches suffer from phantom pregnancies, mammary tumours and even pyometra (an infection of the uterus that can be fatal). I’ve changed my mind. I haven’t noticed any personality changes in neutered bitches. They may be more prone to put on weight, but this simply means an adjustment to their diet.

While bitches may be interested in sex only once a year, dogs are all the time. Again, neutering is the simple answer. Until recently castration wasn’t recommended until after the dog had achieved full maturity or at least a year, but now thinking tends towards the operation being performed at a much earlier age, and well before sexual maturity at five or six months. The advantages of castration are many, including a reduction in possible aggression and the likelihood of prostate problems, and less marking of territory.

Just as a good horse can’t be a bad colour, a good dog can’t be the wrong sex. The secret is to choose whichever you are happier with, bitch or dog.