Monday, January 21, 2013

Do Dogs Have Gender?

When people meet Willa for the first time, they usually call her "he" (until they get close enough to tell). She is a big, burly, macho-looking dog.

What does a purple leash say about me?

A couple at the dog park has a curly, lithe, blond dog named Jengo. Many people incorrectly read Jengo as female at first.

I have laughed with Jengo's parents about this. But I wonder what it means when we make gendered assumptions about dogs?

In one of my favorite memoirs ever, Dog Years, Mark Doty writes: "The edifice of gender we build around dogs through naming is, in truth, too unwieldy and ridiculous to examine" (69). Gender is a human construct, Doty suggests, and has nothing to do with dog behavior or personality. When we ascribe gender to dogs, we reveal more about ourselves, our own values and assumptions and fears, than about them.

Do dogs have gender? Willa thinks that question is silly. 

For example, Willa is strong, unself-conscious, athletic, and a bit dominant in play. She does a growl-and-tackle move when wrestling with other dogs that is distinctly unladylike. She belches, loudly and enthusiastically. Her tongue lolls everywhere. She understands no limits on what she can do besides those that come with a food or stick reward. She makes no assumptions about other dogs based on their biology--at least not that I can tell.

People sometimes explain their dogs' behavior in gendered terms, ascribing meaning to the dog's biological sex. "He's aggressive--it's because he's male." "She's beautiful and she knows it!" "He doesn't like being petted; he's more of the strong, silent type."

Those statements may be true for those specific dogs, but I doubt their truth has anything to do with male or female. It's likely just that dog's personality or training.

Willa will wrestle and wag with boy dogs, girl dogs, boy cats, girl cats, boy humans, girl humans. She doesn't mind being mounted at the dog park. Occasionally dog owners react with shock and shame: "Rover! Down! I'm so sorry." I always smile cheerfully and say, "I don't mind if Willa doesn't mind!" (Because really, who cares when everyone is fixed and having fun?)

Most of the people in my super-liberal neighborhood who bring their dogs to the dog park don't make these distinctions. But sometimes dog owners become particularly upset when a boy-dog mounts another boy-dog. They might laugh nervously or use homophobic statements such as "Rover, that's not going to work." Or "Poor Rover doesn't understand that's not a girl-dog."

In Dog Years, Doty writes that our gendered assumptions about dogs can betray "a fear of same-sex congress that would be comical if it weren't so often a big deal to those who enforce it. If a male dog sniffs another's hind end, this has nothing to do with what human beings mean when they engage in similar behavior. Dogs must simply add whatever prohibitions we impose to the vast category of inscrutable human actions" (69).

At the park, we meet dogs of every type: big and small, active and passive, outgoing and shy, temperamental and steady. These types do not correspond to human categories of gender (masculine to feminine). Each individual dog has a unique personality, and dog personalities are as diverse as human personalities. They are also complex. Though Willa is mostly brave, she is also deathly afraid of moving leaves on the sidewalk. She will cower and ask to cross the street rather than approach such a leaf. (And this is a dog who spends two hours a day in the woods!)

I bark, therefore I am Mr. Lady.

What I love about Dog Years is that Mark Doty takes dogs seriously as complex protagonists. His dogs, Beau and Arden, are the heroes of the book, but not in a sappy, awww-aren't-my-dogs-cute kind of way, and not in an anthropomorphic way either. He thinks about dogs as dogs, trying to strip away the human constructs, such as gender, that obscure our understanding of them. At the same time, he thinks about dog-human relationships with depth and sophistication. If you're a dog lover, you should definitely read Dog Years.

Willa is no lady, but one of her nicknames is Mr. Lady. I also call her Young William; Willy; and Will.

She loves them all. 


  1. I need a dog something bad. Me and my cat are in a "you do your thing, I'll do mine" relationship.

  2. Everyone is in that relationship with their cat(s)!

  3. Great post! I'll look up that book and put it on my list. Thanks for the recommendation.