This is a question I have been pondering for a long time. After reading an interesting post on 24 Paws of Love yesterday, the question has reappeared in the forefront of my brain. As someone formerly active in feminist circles, I have long maintained that gender, by definition, is a human social construct. Expected norms of male and female behaviour are not based on anything more than what human society has deemed appropriate in a given time. Do dogs have similar societal rules that govern their actions?
I’ve never thought so. There are sex differences, of course. I cannot deny biology. Male and female dogs have different hormones that may push them into certain behaviours. For instance, un-neutered males may be more likely to break out and wander the neighbourhood. But what about dogs that have been spayed or neutered? While I am not a behavourist, I do regularly have the opportunity to watch many different dogs interact, play, and perform. I have yet to notice any consistent differences in behaviour between male and female dogs. If all the dogs have enough fur and wear neutrally-coloured collars, it’s impossible for me to tell which dogs are female and which are male.
But it could just be that I don’t know what to look for. Perhaps there are subtle differences I have not picked up on. I know the stereotypes. Some trainers say they prefer to work with females as they are more attentive. Others prefer males as they are less stubborn. It’s a common joke that males like to pee on everything in sight. Cranky female dogs are called “bitchy” – which, I guess, is where the insult originated in the first place. Many people seem to have a preference. However, I am not convinced this preference is based on anything other than personal opinion.
I like to joke that I practice gender-neutral dog ownership. Even though it appears impossible to raise a human child without gender expectations, I like to think it is still possible with a dog. “Shiva” is technically a male name. Her nicknames aren’t particularly feminine either; I’d call a male dog “Doofus” too. She has more blue things than pink. I do use the feminine pronoun “she” but only because there is no other appropriate word to use. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if someone calls her “he” by mistake. I don’t think it bothers her either.
Not that I believe there is anything harmful in dressing one’s female dog in pink or one’s male dog in only blue. There is nothing wrong with hyper masculine or feminine names or insisting on describing one’s male dog as “handsome” and never “pretty”. I just think it’s interesting when some humans seem to believe their dogs understand these things. Is it possible Muffy really feels insulted if someone calls her a boy? Or Jake gets offended when forced to wear a pink sweater?
No doubt I am reading too much into the issue. It’s only meant in fun and I am sure most people are joking around. We humans like to anthropomorphize our pets. I do it all the time, mostly because it amuses me. As I say, for the most part, I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. The only way I think it could be dangerous is if we place these human ideas of gender on our dogs with the expectation they will fulfill a particular role. Say, if one chooses a female puppy over a male because he assumes she will be more loving. When this dog turns out to detest cuddling and prefer wrestling, this person may be very disappointed and the dog could end up in the shelter.
Do you think dogs have gender? Have you observed any consistent behavioural differences between male and female dogs? Do you think putting human ideas of gender roles on dogs could be harmful? Or am I completely off-base? Please share any thoughts in the comments. I am genuinely interested in a discussion on the subject.