Michele Forto and Nicole Forto Alaska Dog Works

The History of Women in Dog Training

To honor the hard working, bad-ass women in dog training, like our own, Michele and Nicole Forto and those that came before them on this International Women’s Day we give you the history of women in dog training. 

In the Preface of dog trainer Babette Haggerty’s book “Woman’s Best Friend, Choosing and Training the Dog That’s Right for You,” published by McGraw-Hill, she writes:

Training dogs is different for women than it is for men.  Dogs listen better to men.  Yet, we are better trainers than men.  We are patient, nurturing, and more generous with praise.  We understand that before you run, you need to walk.  Men often just want the dog to get a beer out of the refrigerator.  Women understand that we first need to give our dogs a foundation of obedience skills and basic manners before we would teach her that.”

With humor, soul and a deep knowledge of dog training – Babette penned her book which is geared to teaching women how to successfully own and train dogs.  She teaches breathing exercises, positive visualizations and affirmations to help with the training process.  There are also pictures and descriptions of “Katas,” where she teaches the reader the footwork, hand signals and body movements of various commands before she describes how to teach the commands.  She says that the dogs in her classes are calmer, the owners have fun and the dropout rate has drastically diminished since she started teaching the katas to her students.

We’ve excerpted the Introduction to her book which has some fascinating and probably not very well-known information about women pioneers in dog training (the book has great pictures too).  And to our readers who are men, we think you’re going to enjoy it as well.

The History of Women in Dog Training

Men always take the credit for the work we women achieve.  Hey, we know the truth, so what difference does it make?  Many men have trained and worked their dogs in the field for hunting and herding from the beginning of their partnership with woman’s best friend.  However, it was women who actually started dog training, as we know it today.

A native of Philadelphia, Dorothy Eustis lived in Switzerland for eight years training German Shepherd Dogs for the Red Cross, as well as for the Swiss army and police.  In 1927 she wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post about the Blind Institute in Potsdam, Germany, which trained dogs for guide dog work for World War I veterans.  Many people wrote her asking for help in finding a guide dog in the United States.  Once she realized that there was such a need in the States, she began the Seeing Eye in 1929.  Originally founded in Nashville, Tennessee, the school moved to Morristown, New Jersey, where it still provides the training of guide dogs.

Helene Whitehouse Walker was a socialite and dog lover.  She raised and showed Standard Poodles.  Mrs. Whitehouse Walker grew tired of everyone believing that her Standard Poodles were only balls of beautiful fluff.  She decided to prove the naysayers wrong—her dogs were like all women—beautiful and brainy.  She learned about obedience firsthand on a trip to England.  She inspired the first competitive obedience test in the United States in 1933.  Held in Mount Kisco, New York, on her father’s estate, the obedience test began public interest in obedience training.  She approached the American Kennel Club with competition information.  The American Kennel Club, both thrilled and intrigued by what she was sharing, asked her to educate people in obedience.

In 1934 Mrs. Whitehouse Walker enlisted Blanche Saunders for help.  Ms. Saunders had worked for her, caring, handling, conditioning, and showing her Poodles.  They packed up a motor home and traveled to all the big cities throughout the country.  By the time the United States began its involvement in World War II, Saunders and Walker had covered the entire country.  They educated people about training and competition.  Dog owners hadn’t realized they could train their own dogs.  Thanks to Mrs. Whitehouse Walker and Ms. Saunders, owners today know they can train their dogs.  It is undeniable that they are the first ladies of obedience.

Between 1940 and 1945 dogs received large amounts of publicity.  Many families donated their dogs to the war effort.  With the affluence the United States experienced after World War II, the number of families with dogs as pets grew.  The purebred dog became the latest status symbol.  The sharing of one’s life with a dog, along with the education efforts of Blanche Saunders and Helene Whitehouse Walker, created a need for dog-training professionals.

During the 1940s through the 1970s the late Bea Godsol was known as a great mentor and judge.  She was one of the early women pioneers in dog training, conducting training clinics and classes at her ranch in California.  Later, both she and her husband, Colonel Major Godsol, judged and trained throughout the world.

Edi Munneke worked as a school teacher for more than 30 years.  After school she trained dogs for basic manners and competed in obedience trials, first with Wirehaired Fox Terriers and then later with Golden Retrievers.  In the 1950s, most of the better-known trainers were men who had returned from the war; however, the larger percentage of trainers comprised women.  The women teaching the group classes were mostly housewives and thought of training as a hobby, something that gave them an opportunity to get out of the house.  Most did it as volunteer work for their local obedience clubs.  As obedience clubs began to spring up all over the country at this time, the classes were designed for obedience competition rather than for developing a problem-free dog.

Lois Meistrell owned and operated Great Neck Dog Training Center.  Mrs. Meistrell was a pioneer in field trials and obedience competition.  When speaking of her experiences, Mrs. Meistrell, a Vermont resident, now in her mid-nineties, will claim that her husband, Harland, was the better of the duo.  Old-timers in the dog world strongly disagree.  Working and training all breeds, she was on television for more than thirty-two weeks, showing children how to work with dogs.  The Meistrells were training from the 1940s through the 1960s.  What is so interesting about this particular era was that the Meistrells were conducting group obedience classes in the ballrooms of New York City hotels on a weekly basis.  This would be unheard of today.  Lois and Harland referred to themselves as cynologists, not trainers, a term that simply means “students of dog-behavior.”

A great contributor to obedience and an even greater one to German Shepherd Dogs is undoubtedly Winifred Strickland.  At the 1965 national German Shepherd Dog specialty in Phoenix, Arizona, Winifred Strickland amazed the audience with her “agility” test, putting her dog Joll through a series of obstacles and jumps.  Many people in the audience hadn’t realized how much their dogs could learn.  This was at least ten years before a simpler version of agility came to this country.  Not only known for earning first places in competition, Ms. Strickland also wrote the first book for dog-training instructors and was the first to make obedience-training videos.  In 2000 she was recognized by the AKC for having more than two hundred obedience titles.  This is a first in obedience, and the titles were all on her own dogs.  To mention all of Ms. Strickland’s accomplishments and contributions to dog obedience and the German Shepherd Dog would be a book in itself.

The most entertaining woman who brought dog training to your living room was a white-haired, stern woman named Barbara Woodhouse.  Uttering the command “walkies” spoken in a British shrill, she brought laughter and enjoyment to anyone who watched her.  Formerly a horse trainer, she rose quickly to dog fame with her television show “Dog Training by Barbara Woodhouse.”  Dressed in a wool sweater and plaid kilt, she was a much bigger hit than the BBC had expected.  She had a firm approach to training owners and their dogs.  Strongly convicted in her beliefs, she received criticism and still does.  Agree or disagree with her techniques, no one can fairly deny that dogs responded to her ways.  With the large attendance she drew to her two-day obedience course and her television show, she helped save the lives of thousands of dogs.

There have been many more women who have made great contributions to the evolving world of dogs, whether it be in training, showing, breeding, grooming, writing or veterinary medicine.  There is much yet to be learned, and I believe women will be the ones to carry dogs to a higher plane so that men will finally concede and admit what we have always known: dogs truly are woman’s best friend.


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