Dogs and Gender – Does it Matter?

When I’m out with Moses and we meet new people, they almost always correctly assume he’s a male dog. I can’t think of any instance whatsoever where someone thought Moses was a female dog. Even with his purple collar.

This makes sense – in most breeds of dog, the males are slightly bigger than the females. It’s biology. Moses is a pretty darn big dog, so you’re hedging your bets to assume he’s a dude.

When I walk Moses and Alma together, almost everyone also correctly guesses that Moses is a ‘he’ and Alma is a ‘she’, though sometimes they assume they’re both males, probably just because they’re both big.

When I walk Alma alone, however, without Moses there to make her look comparatively small, people assume, most of the time, that’s she’s a male dog. It doesn’t help that she frequently lifts her leg to pee.

Moses & Alma

Moses & Alma

When I used to work in the dog training biz, I always made an effort to try to use the correct gender pronouns when talking with the clients about their dogs, even if it wasn’t always easy to tell. (They all can’t be intact shorthaired male dogs.)

It was always easier for me to remember the dog names over the people names, and the dog’s name was usually a decent hint if the dog was a he or a she. Of course, there’s always those gender-neutral names (e.g., Charlie, Sam, Lucky, Dakota) to foil that theory, and occasionally you’ll get one completely out of left field to keep you guessing (e.g, Homer for a female; a female cat I used have that I named Plato).

A young Moses and his female buddy Homer, back in the day in dog school

A young Moses and his female buddy Homer, back in the day in dog school

The last resort – aside from eliminating pronouns altogether (“how’s it going here?” / “how’s the little fuzzball doing?”) – was to guess based on collar colour. Of course, Moses’ collar is purple and Alma’s is blue, so my own dogs serve as perfect examples of this not being a good hint. And it’s really not. It often steered me wrong, and I’ve made many incorrect assumptions based on colours and gender stereotypes.

You know what collar colour really shows? What colours the owners like. They say almost nothing about whether the dog is male or female.

While taking care of Crosby, I've noticed people mostly assume she's a male. She's not.

While taking care of Crosby, I’ve noticed people mostly assume she’s a male. She’s not.

So why all the effort to make sure I correctly identified dogs as male and female?

Because, despite liberally picking collar colours, owners still get bent out of shape about it!

I’ve accidentally referred to a female dog as ‘he’ only to have the owner stop me mid sentence to sternly tell me “she’s a SHE.”  I’ve noticed this will still happen occasionally during some brief dog park small talk.

And I don’t fully understand why it’s such a big deal.

Sure, if someone calls Alma a ‘he’, I’ll continue to use the proper female pronouns in the conversation when referring to her. If they pick up on it, great. If not, I’m not about to make a big deal about it. I don’t really care if a stranger thinks my dog is a boy or a girl – especially during a fleeting conversation. And I’m certain Alma doesn’t care.

Alma's just Alma

Alma’s just Alma

But to some dog owners it seems to be a big deal, this whole gender business.

Ever see two male dogs playing in the dog park when one mounts the other? How long until the jokes about sexual orientation begin amongst the owners? Not long.

A dog’s sex – like every other animal, humans included – refers to its biological parts, and we talk about male or female in terms of reproductive roles. But for most pet dogs, those parts are out of commission, or they will be.

Gender, however, is something different. Gender “refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex.” If you click the hyperlink, you’ll read how gender identity is how people identify themselves (which is not always the same as their sex, and is not the same as sexual orientation), and gender expression is how people communicate their identities within a culture. For example, my sex is female, my gender identity is female, my sexual orientation is heterosexual, and I communicate my gender identity in a pretty typical western way, with my long hair, dresses, high heels, makeup, etc.

Humans sure are preoccupied with relationships between sex and gender and like it best when they can categorize others easily to make sense of their worlds, even if “non-binary gender diversity exists throughout the world, documented by countless historians and anthropologists.” My post last week is a great example of gender-normative stereotypes driving me a little crazy.

So I suppose, whether correct or not, it makes sense that these preoccupations are imposed upon our pets, too.

But does it matter to our pets?

I doubt it. I seriously doubt Moses and Alma have gender identities; they’re just themselves. They don’t even identify as “Moses” and “Alma” respectively, given that all their names really signify to them is a verbal cue that I want their attention. And they’re both fixed, so they’ll never fall into the male and female reproductive roles.

Outside of the biology and making puppies business, they actually behave materially the same. Their play styles are similar. Alma doesn’t bark in a particularly ‘feminine’ way and Moses doesn’t walk in a particularly ‘masculine’ way.

There’s no one telling Alma – in a way that she can understand – that she ought to squat to pee and that she snores like a dude. There’s no one telling Moses that his empathetic nature and his Care Bear toy make him a sissy. And Moses doesn’t care if the dog he’s trying to mount at the park is male or female as long as he gets away with it (he doesn’t).

But there still is talk of behavioural differences between male and female dogs. As they say:“If you want a good dog, get a male. If you want a great dog, get a female and cross your fingers.”

But if gender is a human construct, how much of this is generalization based on our own preconceptions? A self-fulfilling prophecy? A product of socialization and training? Probably most of it. A quick Google search didn’t turn up any credible studies showing otherwise.

And we’ll never be able to confirm for certain with our dogs – they’ll never be able to tell us.

But I doubt they have gender and I don’t think assigning them any communicates anything of value.

Not for our domestic dogs, anyway (primates may be a different story). Sure, there are lots of species out there where the males and females look (sexual dimorphism) and behave significantly differently, but our pets are not examples of that.

Yet people still get tense when I screw it up. It’s an honest mistake! And certainly not a judgment statement. If you’re insulted that I mistakenly called your male dog a “she”, that sounds like a you problem.

I think the offence taken when I make mistakenly guess a dog’s sex really speaks to larger issues people have with ideas about gender norms and roles, burdening our pets with a lot of human issues. I mean, there are species of animals out there that can change their biological sex, so trying to assign genders in the animal kingdom would be incredibly complicated and wholly unnecessary.

A photo of a parrotfish I took on a dive trip to Bonaire many years ago. Fun fact: parrotfish can change their sex.

A photo of a parrotfish I took on a dive trip to Bonaire many years ago. Fun fact: parrotfish can change their sex.

What about you? Do you think gender applies to our pets? Do people incorrectly assume the sex of your dog? Do you care if they do?

This post is part of the Thursday Barks & Bytes Blog Hop, hosted by 2 Brown Dawgs and Heart Like a Dog. Go pay a visit to the hosts and check out other hop participants.


About ThatJenK
Writing from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 90% pictures of my dogs; 10% miscellaneous opinions nobody asked for.

44 Responses to Dogs and Gender – Does it Matter?

  1. 2browndawgs says:

    Thanks so much for joining the hop with another thoughtful post. We are no help to people because none of our dogs have gender descriptive names. I think when people don’t know, they usually guess male, unless they themselves have a female and then that it what they guess. That has been my experience at least. I rarely correct people who make the mistake, unless I can do so in context of the discussion (or post). It doesn’t really matter to me if they get it wrong, but if I made the mistake, I would like to be politely corrected.

  2. Roxy can be wearing her turquoise harness with a bow, and still get called he. Torrey is almost always called he. I will correct people like you mentioned. Someone said, and i thinks it’s mostly true, that people will call big dogs he, and small dogs she.

  3. What an awesome post Jen! When I’m walking the dogs together people usually assume that Sherman is a female because he’s smaller than Leroy. When I walk the boys separate, most of the time people ask if Sherman is a boy or a girl. With Leroy it is always assumed that he is a boy.

    I agree about the color of the leash and collar not always being a great indicator because I’ve had my eye on this hot pink leash for Leroy for a long time (It’s so cool and pink) but I keep telling myself to wait until they get a red one in!

    If I’m not sure of the gender or sex of a dog I normally ask but I have made the mistake a few times!

  4. RunwithLab says:

    Your dog lifts her leg too? Do most female dogs do that? My dog taught herself how to do that when she was around three years old, and I’ve always found it hilarious.

    Likewise, I don’t care if people call my dog a he or a she. I do, however, get irritated when they call her an “it”.

    • ThatJenK says:

      I don’t think it’s common, but Alma does it – she lifts her leg and marks territory. Habits she learned from Moses after we adopted her. Just one of her qwerks 😀

      Completely agree on the ‘it’! Would rather they got the gender wrong as long as they didn’t refer to them as objects.

  5. Emma says:

    Actually, to my mom it does matter. We are her girls, we wear girl colored collars, have girl names are not dark colors (dark dogs tend to be seen as male) but people repeatedly refer to us as boys. Large dogs are also often thought of as he not she, happens to my big white sis Katie all the time. I guess we are important to Mom and she wants people to respect that and to her calling a female dog a he or a male a she is just not respectful. If it is an accident and the people have no way to know it can happen but if someone says he, she kindly brings the fact that we are all girls into the conversation. If the person continues to say he it will really piss her off. Funny thing is that as a small child Mom was referred to often as he because she didn’t have much hair until she was almost two and that made Gramma mad. Even in a pink frilly dress people called Mom a he! People make mistakes, but if you don’t know ask or if you are corrected use the correct gender…that is our opinion 🙂

    • ThatJenK says:

      Exactly why I try to put in the effort! Even though I don’t fuss to much on it, it’s still important to other people! Though, it sounds like you make it pretty easy for people to get it right, too.
      Although, as RunwithLab says above, I’d still much rather use the incorrect gender pronoun than use “it”, which I know some do, even if just trying to be gender-neutral. Now THAT I find disrespectful!

  6. Dad says:

    The Lassie generation almost always refers to Joshua as a female. All the TV and movie Lassie dogs (Pal & Mason) were male dogs because they were larger with a thicker longer coat than the female collies. I just thought I should weigh in after that lengthy read.

  7. Will and Eko says:

    Glad I found your blog, this is a great post. I tend to think most people stereotype other dogs based on which sex dog they have. We say my mom has DID (Doggie Identification Disorder) because she still sometimes refers to Eko (my male dog) as a she since her dog is female. Eko doesn’t seem to mind when people mistake his sex, so it doesn’t bother me. I’ll subtly correct someone in conversation, but beyond that it doesn’t seem worth much effort. If someone is kind and showing Eko some affection/attention, I’ll happily cut them some slack – hoping others will do the same for me!

  8. People usually think Donna is a he too. I don’t really care and neither does she. And I have the same thoughts as you that gender really doesn’t matter in her case since she is already neutered.

    But right in the beginning when we first adopted her, we were told by the shelter that she is aggressive towards female dogs. So for a while, every time we met a dog, I was careful to ask from a far whether the other dog was male or female before letting them meet. Eventually I realised that you know what, Donna really was not aggressive with female dogs at all!

    So yah, nowadays, it doesn’t matter if the dog is male or female. Although I do still ask so that I use the correct pronoun rather than use “it” on somebody else’ dog.:P

    • ThatJenK says:

      Totally agree on the “it”!
      We used to think Alma was specifically more of an ass around other female dogs, too, but that theory didn’t hold up long-term, even if we were looking for it to be true. Her assery is just dog/situation specific, not gender/sex-specific.

  9. Interesting post. We named our first female dog Maxine and called her Max just because I liked the name. Since then our dogs have had gender specific names, but not on purpose. I guess it doesn’t really bother me, but I’ve never really thought of it. My female Labs have always been very feminine looking so they’ve never been mistaken for males – and Jack certainly would never be mistaken for a female!

  10. I have corrected people, but sometimes I just let it go. It’s really not that big a deal to me. But it can lead to confusion.

    One older gentleman was going on and on about how pretty Ryder is, and what a sweet girl “she” was! (Ryder is a male collie, with a male name.) I didn’t correct him, and after a 5 minutes conversation about Ryder, when the man asked what his name was, I told him it was Abby. At that point I didn’t feel comfortable telling him that Ryder was a he, not a she, and that I just hadn’t bothered correcting him during our conversation.

  11. Jessica says:

    I tend to think of dogs I don’t know as “he” because I have a boy dog. I rarely give it much more thought than that.

    As for Silas, he has no hair, so it’s all out there for the world to see.

    I suspect that people who get upset about it either got upset about people misidentifying them when they were children, or they have human children and are just in the habit of correcting people. (The average kid is big into policing gender boundaries, for many and complex reasons.)

    • ThatJenK says:

      Yeah, I think I go with “he” as a default mostly because Moses was my first dog, so I’m used to it. Also, on the sensitivity/preoccupation with gender boundaries, people seem more forgiving if you incorrectly use ‘he’ over ‘she’, but THAT’S a topic too big for here.

  12. jan says:

    My groomer has made it easy for me. She insists that girl Poodles look like girls and boy Poodles look like boys. Timmy is smaller, but he has a mustache and shorter ears than the refined Misty so no one calls him a girl.

  13. lexy3587 says:

    My (male) dog is named Gwynn (which most people hear as Gwen), wears a purple collar and has a purple leash. He’s also kind of pastel coloured and shaggy enough that all equipment is fully covered. He LOOKS like a girl. If I actually cared what gender people assume my dog to be, I clearly made some tactical errors 😛
    I once told a man that his dog was beautiful (seriously, though… absolutely stunning), and got the sharp rebuke of ‘HE prefers handsome, he’s a boy.’… It really is interesting how irate people can be about their pets. I don’t mind what people call gwynn, though I don’t switch my own pronouns when talking about him to suit their beliefs. And if someone corrects me (even by just using the correct pronoun), then I’ll roll with it.
    I don’t think dogs care what we call them (Gwynn has recently been going by the name Fishy fishy in our house, and seems quite happy with it :P), though I do think at least a little, that dogs react to each others’ genders, though more especially neutered vs unneutered. Gwynn takes a bit more interest in unneutered males… not negative, but… curious, i guess.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Yes, totally agree sex plays a role in dog-dog interactions, especially when intact. When Moses was intact, a LOT more dogs would take exception to his presence and start scuffles – it was not fun. And, of course, he had a one track mind of his own.

  14. Someone once told me that Mr. N was too pretty to be a boy. 99 percent of people think he’s a girl. He fits all the gender assumptions: delicate features, light colored, fluffy and small. Plus his name doesn’t really help either. I joke that I could dress him in camo and skulls and people would still be like, oh what a pretty girl! People usually think Onyxx is a boy though. I guess because he’s dark colored?
    If I got offended, I’d be offended all the time! I’ll correct people if we’re talking for a while but random strangers who want to pet him for a few seconds? Whatever.

  15. Abby says:

    Like you mention, because we have two German shepherds, most people think they are both male. Because big/scary dogs have to only be males, I guess. A lot of that is headed off by Pyrrha’s pink harness and purple collar, but we dress Eden like a boy. 🙂 (Black leather collar and black harness.) I tend to think that there isn’t an enormous difference in behavior based on sex; yes, of course, there are biological elements, and anecdotally, everyone says bitches fight more, but as far as personality goes, I can’t detect much difference. I think of dogs, like people, as individuals, regardless of sex or gender.

  16. dollythedoxie says:

    Pretty much everyone knows Dolly is a girl, she’s had pink, lime green, red and now fuchia collars which are pretty girlie I guess. I do try to get the sex right but in a first meet on a leash its easy to make a mistake. The Lady

  17. Great post! I think some people definitely do get a little to bent out of shape about something so silly. I basically do the same thing you do, I will just keep referring to my dogs as he or she or whichever they are talking about at the time. There has been once or twice when I said she’s a she or whatever the case may be, but not while they were talking, and not impolitely.
    Interesting post!
    And thanks for coming by my blog 🙂

    ღ husky hugz ღ frum our pack at Love is being owned by a husky!

  18. Beagles and Bargains says:

    Very interesting post. Everyone always thinks Luna is a male even though she has a purple collar and her name is Luna. To be honest, I was stuck in a pattern where I thought subconsciously that all dogs were male and all cats were female, just because that is what I had for pets growing up.

    • ThatJenK says:

      Ha! I totally remember that as a kid – cats for girls, dogs for boys. Not sure if I thought all cats WERE girls, but I definitely thought they were a ‘girl pet’, whatever that means.

  19. harrispen says:

    Well said. It really shouldn’t matter. Millie often gets referred to in the masculine even though she wears a pink collar. I think it’s because she is mostly black (and it seems people tend to think black equals male). She also has a fairly short coat so it wouldn’t take much to notice that she doesn’t have a “boy appendage” hanging below her belly. I am slightly annoyed since we do put her in a pink collar. I don’t think too many people would put a male in pink unless it was the only collar they had on hand. I usually try to use my powers of observation (collar color, boy parts hanging down) before referring to a gender pronoun for dogs we meet because I know some people are sensitive to it.


  20. It is so funny how sensitive people can be! I try to call a dog by its correct gender but if they have long hair and a generic name…oh well! Haha!

  21. Another great post. So funny that people can get bent about that. If folks know Rita’s name, it’s usually fairly obvious she’s a she. Our trainer occasionally calls her he, even though he knows her name. Kinda funny, but I never bother to correct him. He works with a ton of dogs, so who can expect him to keep them all straight. In general, I admit I tend to think of dogs as boys and cats as girls.

  22. Jana Rade says:

    Well, I do believe that it does matter, to some degree. In general, it is always more likely for a male and female to get along better than two females or two males. Not that they cannot get along just great, but the mixed genders should improve the odds.

    JD does show a different attitude around males than he does around females. Jasmine didn’t care about gender, just cared about intentions. Cookie loves everybody but seems to be more inclined towards males.

  23. Great post. At the vet clinic I am a tech at we really try to say the correct sex. People do get really upset about it. Can’t always go by the collar as I see a lot of males wearing pink. 😀

  24. Kurome says:

    Nice info on the fish!!

    He or she doesn’t matter here as our language doesn’t differentiate male and female, both are called ‘dia’

  25. Great post, Jen! I have to admit that I do occasionally get my feathers ruffled when someone calls any of my girls “he” or “him”. But I’m not sure why…maybe it just depends on the mood I’m in at the time. I know Callie, Shadow, and Ducky couldn’t care less one way or the other so why should I?

    As for collar colors — my choices were purely my personal preferences. Purple is my favorite color, so since Callie came first she got the “honor” of wearing my favorite color. And it looks good on her. Shadow looks like a girl to me — slightly smaller than your breed standard — so her collar is pastel pink. Ducky wears red because it looks good against her black fur, and because it seems to fit her personality. She’s a sweet little demon. And invariably, someone will refer to my girls as boys even when they know they’re girls. So, I try not to let it bother me.

  26. Clowie says:

    People often assume I’m a male dog because I’m large. It’s certainly difficult to tell with all the white fluff! It doesn’t bother my bipeds at all. Like you, they will refer to me as “she” and if the people continue to call me “he” they don’t get upset – and it certainly doesn’t bother me.
    Visitors often assume that the fluffy one of our cats is female because he’s so pretty – I don’t think he’s bothered. He hides from all visitors as soon as he gets a chance!

  27. kimberlygauthier says:

    Gender is fascinating to me, because I always like to connect things to “because she’s a girl,” even though my logic is mostly flaws. Sydney and Zoey were harder to potty train so I asked my FB followers who they thought would be harder to potty train based on their experience with dogs. Half said the girl, half said the boy.

    The boys are more affectionate. Nope. The girls are more demanding, Nope. The boys are easier to train. Nope. the only thing that is consistent is that our boys lift their legs and the girls squat to pee.

    Great post!

  28. I asked myself exactly the same questions as the ones you asked on my blog. Don’t have any answers though, because I didn’t speak to the pets’ owner.
    Loving all the dogs here. Beautiful.

  29. Jodi says:

    Thanks for joining the blog hop!! Like you I don’t really think being classified male or female matters to the dogs. Usually people just ask me their names and when I point them out, it’s very clear who is what. Of course, Delilah lifts her leg to pee and Sampson sometimes squats, so that wouldn’t help anyone!

  30. terra toby says:

    Sorry, the gender issue was interesting, but I got totally derailed by your photo of a parrotfish in Bonaire! You are a fellow diver! I didn’t know that. We visited Bonaire last year for the first time and are going back in May – I’m so excited about it. Your photo of the parrotfish is excellent – getting the light right is so tricky 😀

    • ThatJenK says:

      Underwater photography is definitely something I’m trying to work on!
      I love Bonaire – so envious of your trip(s)! It’s so far my favourite dive location, for sure – you can’t beat it. Of course, we went in 2008 when they had their first hurricane/tropical storm in decades… lucky us! Though I hear they’ve since rebuilt quite well and the reef is looking healthy again. We’ll have to return sooner than later ourselves.

  31. I find it interesting to think about how people think about their dog’s gender too. Lots of people call Honey “him” or “Buddy.” I don’t bother to correct them. They’re connecting with a cute dog. What does her actual sex matter?

    But when I meet a person and her dog, I always ask the gender so I can use the right pronoun. Sure, the dog doesn’t care. But the person probably does.

    I’ve had many reminders of how important gender is to humans. I’ve had several transgendered people take my workshops and I’ve gotten used to asking how people wish me to refer to them. Since so many people see dogs as extensions of themselves, asking the question about their dog’s pronouns makes sense.

    BTW, I had a female dog who lifted her leg too. I’m glad to hear she wasn’t unique.

  32. Pingback: Friendly Friday - The canine condition |

  33. Nailah Bone says:

    Gender roles vary from culture to culture but when it comes to dog culture I don’t see why they should matter.

    I personally don’t care if people think Nailah is a girl even though I dress her up in mostly pink and well, her name isn’t very masculine. When it comes to someone providing us with a service though, like a groomer or trainer, I do think they should take the time to note her sex. Our new rally trainer just refers to all the dogs in the class as males and it kind of bugs me. I feel like it’s really lazy of her, especially since there are only 4 of us. I only corrected her a few times but have pretty much given up, but this other lady in class got really upset about it.

    I wonder if people get mad when others mistake their female for a male because they see this at them saying their dog isn’t pretty like girls are supposed to be (according to society)? And with males they see this as people thinking their dog looks weak? Who knows.

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