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.

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