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As a professional dog trainer, I have worked with many dogs who are “nervous around men” or had a “bad experience with a woman and now are scared of them.” Or, in a more positive light, dogs that love a certain gender.
My husky-mix has always adored men. I remember when we had our kitchen remodeled and had male contractors in and out of the house, I think it was the best month of her life!
So, if we as dog owners can already observe these behaviors in response to a certain gender, we are already admitting that our dogs can tell the gender of humans. Humans usually use visual aids, but dogs have to utilize a combination of sensory clues to help them tell the gender of humans.
Furthermore, if dogs can tell the gender of humans, how exactly do they know they the difference between a man and a woman?
Even dogs that have been owned by a single person and have not been very well socialized can learn to tell the gender of humans. Dogs use the senses of hearing, sight, and smell, to help them determine the difference between a man and a woman.
So, let’s explore the way these senses help dogs tell the gender of humans, why some senses are more reliable than others, what can cause a dog to be nervous about one gender and how can you help make them more comfortable.
How Do Dogs Know The Difference Between a Man And a Woman?
Before we carry on, I want to talk about how I am generalizing men and women in this post. Men are generally bigger than women and their voices are generally deeper. There are of course exceptions, for example, I, a woman, am almost 6 feet tall, almost 3 inches taller than the average American man.
However, dogs do not only rely on visual cues to help tell the genders of humans. They also use olfactory and auditory cues to help determine the gender of humans.
Since most men and women often speak with different tones, and dogs have good enough hearing to recognize those different pitches. This video shows that recognize their owners, but could they tell their owner’s gender just by listening?
Dogs have very good hearing and can even tell each other’s age through the pitch of their bark, so it seems reasonable to assume that they could tell the gender of a human by voice. In general, women usually have a higher pitch or tone to their voice than men; so do dogs notice that difference?
One study with 51 different dogs tested to see if the dogs could match a male or female voice with the correct gender. In the presence of a man or woman, a recorded voice was played. It was observed that the dogs would look at the woman when a female voice was played and at the man when a male voice was played.
What they discovered was that dogs who lived in a multi-person household that consisted of a man and a woman were much more likely to glance at the person who matched the gender of the recording. Dogs who lived in a one-person household had more difficulty matching the gender, probably because they have not been exposed to the other gender very much.
Socialization outside of the home environment is important to help create a well-rounded and confident dog. Many people think of socialization as positive exposure to other dogs, but it includes other animals, weird noises, unusual stimuli, and all genders of people!
On top of their voice, a person’s body weight and height can give dogs clues as to what gender they are. Men are typically larger both in height and weight than women (as I already touched on, this is of course a generalization) while women are often smaller and of slighter build.
Dogs of the same breed have similar gendered body norms. A male dog is typically taller and weighs more than a female dog of the same breed. This is a visual cue that helps dogs note gender differences in each other, and they probably carry it over to people as well.
If a dog lives in a one-person household, they will likely be more comfortable with someone who physically resembles their owner. For example, if they live with a man, they will likely gravitate toward other men of similar stature.
Under-socialized, fearful, and shy dogs are often more comfortable with women just because the size difference makes men scarier. Reading and understanding dog body language and doing things like making yourself appear smaller and less threatening can help ease a scared dog’s fear. It will make them more comfortable with a gender that might make them nervous.
Big breed dogs and small breed dogs obviously have to utilize other cues like smell to identify each other genders since the visual cue of size is not helpful. The sense of smell could also give dogs the biggest clue to tell the difference between human genders as well!
Dogs have an incredible sense of smell. From dogs working with authorities to sniff out narcotics and cadavers, to dogs who participate in nose work and scent games with their humans, it is clear their sense of smell is far superior to our own. Some dogs can even detect cancer because of their unique sense of smell.
Part of the reason dogs have such a unique sense of smell is because of the Jacobsen’s Organ.
The Jacobsen’s Organ detects scents that humans cannot smell like pheromones. In fact, it is directly linked to the part of the brain that deals with mating. Evolutionary it directs a male dog to a female in heat, but also helps puppies identify their mother since her pheromones will be different than a dog that has not recently had puppies.
While there has not been a lot of research done on dogs’ sense of smell helping them tell the difference between human genders, the fact that the Jacobsen’s Organ detects the subtle smell of dog pheromones and hormones, means they can probably detect the hormone differences in human men and women.
Dogs can even smell the subtle difference in hormones when women are on their period. A dog’s sense of smell is up to 10,000 times better than people’s and we share many of the same classic male/female hormones, like testosterone and estrogen. Anyone who has been to a dog park has probably had the misfortune of a dog sticking its face up your butt for a good sniff; they are likely trying to determine your gender!
Does Gender Matter To Dogs?
Gender does not normally matter to dogs, but some dogs certainly have a preference over a female owner and a male owner. If a dog prefers women over men, it could be because they have only lived with women or had a bad experience with a man. A sound sensitive dog could even be nervous around deep-pitched men or very high-pitched women.
So I think the better question to ask is ” does experience with gender matter to dogs?” The answer to that is a resounding “Yes!”. You should not only socialize your dog around other dogs and take them to the hardware store but make sure they have positive experiences around all sorts of different people. This includes children of all ages and people of all genders.
Remember it is okay to let your dog or puppy go at their own pace when socializing with a person who is of a gender that might make them nervous. A dog that has had a bad experience or a puppy is going through a fear period, might get overwhelmed if you are impatient and rush their exposure.
If there is someone you can trust of the gender that makes your dog nervous, let your dog approach them slowly. Tell your friend to make themselves less threatening by making themselves appear smaller and to not make eye contact with your dog.
In this video, Victoria Stilwell has guests completely ignore the dogs in order to take all the pressure off and the dogs are much more relaxed.
If your dog continues to relax, your friend can toss high-value treats at your dog to build those positive experiences. Never force a nervous dog to be pet by someone they are scared of, as it could set your dog back training wise and create a dangerous situation.
Do Dogs Know Their Own Gender?
Gender is a human social-construct that we apply not just to ourselves, but to other animals. Many dog owners might insist that female dogs are moodier while male dogs are more aggressive, but most breeders agree that temperament and behavior are based on the individual puppy and that gender plays less of a role.
There are a lot of factors besides gender that can influence your dog’s personality, including breed, socialization, having them spayed or neutered, and training history.
Dogs can tell the gender of themselves and of humans in a biological sense. Males and females are usually built differently and produce different hormones. So while dogs do not know their owner’s gender in terms of being a girly girl or manly man, they have an understanding of their own body parts and the hormones they produce and that can influence some of their behavior.
For example, your male dog’s hormones might influence your decision to add a second male dog to your household, but it is far more likely their breed, temperament, and personality are going affect him more than his gender.
There are a lot of sensory cues that can clue a dog into the gender of humans. They can tell through their visual, auditory, and (most importantly) olfactory senses. Since dogs cannot speak, they get most of their information through these senses, and it helps them navigate their world in interacting with humans.
What is more important than men versus women in the dog’s mind is socializing your dog so that they are confident enough to interact with anyone they encounter. An under-socialized dog is likely to develop anxiety and fear of the unknown and new people, regardless of gender.
Start socializing your dog or puppy as soon as you bring them home with as many people, sights, sounds, and new things as they can comfortably handle. Then you and your dog can both go out into the world self-assured that they will enjoy every person they meet, regardless of gender!