Pup Culture: Victoria Victorious: Women and the Sport of Dogs

Victoria Victorious: Women and the Sport of Dogs

 

By Bud Boccone

During her 63-year reign, Queen Victoria was closely associated with at least 15 breeds. She helped define the look of some and popularized several others. Victoria also single-handedly made it acceptable for women to exhibit dogs. In so doing, she opened the door for women to compete with men on their own terms.

In 1861 Victoria’s husband and fellow dog fanatic, Prince Albert, died at age 42. The queen never stopped mourning Albert’s sudden death and wore widow’s weeds for her remaining 40 years. She filled an emotional void with a passion for all things doggy. The imperious queen surrounded by a swirl of canine companions became a familiar sight to her subjects.

Victoria’s puppy love had far-reaching implications. In an age when competitive sport for women was frowned upon, it was acceptable in Britain and America for women to compete at dog shows—mostly because Victoria said so. If the queen herself enjoyed breeding and showing dogs, who would dare call it an improper pursuit for a lady?

In the show ring, men and women have always met on a level playing field—no handicaps, no courtesies. This undoubtedly attracted many competitive women with few other outlets. Others used it as a way of finding themselves. “When I was 13, I was as tall as I am now—six-foot-two—and that’s very tough on a girl,” Anne Rogers Clark wrote. “Dogs were a passageway for me.”

World War II was perhaps the female fancy’s finest hour. Some women contributed to the war effort directly, like Short Seeley, who bred sled dogs for the K-9 corps. Others held together the home, family, and kennel while their men were at war.

Many stories typify the female spirit of the war years. One concerns Hollywood star and Great Dane fancier Lina Basquette, who in the 1930s was introduced to her biggest fan, Adolph Hitler. When he got too handsy with Basquette, the legend goes, she hauled off and kicked der Führer right in the goebbels. Surely apocryphal, but Americans wanted to believe that a petit but plucky woman could deliver this mighty blow for freedom, and so it became part of dogdom’s folklore.

How frustrating it must have been for such spirited women to be denied a voice in the governing body. By 1952, more than 40 percent of AKC judges were women. Yet, in that year the all-male Delegates voted down a proposal to seat female Delegates. The motion would not carry until 1974. And when the walls of the boys’ club finally came crashing down, it wasn’t due to boycotts and protests. It happened simply because women had so firmly established themselves as the sport’s backbone that to further deny them would be ludicrous.

To this day, dog sports remain a popular outlet for female self-expression. And it’s still one of the rare sporting venues where women compete dead even against men. No doubt, that’s the way Victoria would have wanted it.