When I was looking for a companion dog for my female basset hound, a friend suggested, “Why not get a boy?” I’d never had a boy dog. How different could a boy be?
That’s how I ended up with Zeke, a basset puppy. While my girl, Yazmine, chewed on toys by herself, Zeke sat at my feet as I scratched his ears. If I stopped, he nudged me to continue. He had a ravenous hunger for affection. Outside, Zeke chased Yazmine until she was exhausted. And when she napped, he dug a deep hole near our back porch. Then he moved on to the bamboo, where he hypnotically gnawed one stalk after another. After that, my new boy cruised the backyard with his nose to the ground. He once escaped through a hole in the fence and for the next 13 years, Zeke searched for backyard escape routes.
But even when Zeke outweighed Yazmine, she was the boss. She stole his toys, treats and even his bed if he got up to investigate a crumb on the floor. And on more than one occasion, Zeke ran right into Yazmine and she barked in his face until he hung his head like a husband who’d stayed out late at a bar with his buddies. My exuberant boy wasn’t the same hot dog with mustard I’d always had.
Are there universal traits for male dogs and female dogs? I was certain someone had the answer.
Surfing the Net
I searched the Internet first and found Barbara Davenport, a dog trainer with 30 years experience. Davenport selects and trains dogs to sniff for narcotics or to locate and track wildlife for conservation programs. Most of her dogs come from shelters and rescue organizations and most are considered unadoptable to the public due to their drive and behavioral problems.
Were more boy or girl dogs enrolled in Davenport’s training courses, I asked. “I don’t check to see if the dogs I select are boys or girls, I select on merit,” Davenport said. “But out of the 14 dogs in my kennels right now, only two are girls. It’s possible more males have the drive necessary for the work, but since I don’t check the sex, I have no idea whether the dogs I reject are male or female candidates. There could also be more males in shelters. Neutering reduces a male’s working drive, but if a male or female passes an aptitude test, there isn’t any difference in the dog’s job performance. Male or female—it comes down to personal preference. I get along better with males, but both sexes are equally talented.”
The idea of a “working drive” seemed like a good lead, so I contacted Kevin King from the Washington State Police Canine Association in Spokane, Wash. who says, “The canine drive needed for patrol dog work is typically found in males rather than the females. If females exhibit those drives they’re often used for breeding purposes.” Only a few of the 100 patrol dogs are females, the rest are intact males. “But drug dogs are different. You find an equal mix of males and females there,” says King.
I explored breed websites next. Perhaps I could find enough common threads to paint a picture of typical male and female behavior traits. A Tibetan mastiff breeder said males were carefree and playful while females could be moody and cranky. A Labrador retriever breeder said males get up and go with their owners at a moments notice, while females do things according to their own schedule. An Irish wolfhound owner queried 30 other wolfhound breeders and discovered all their alpha dogs were females. Moody, cranky, independent females who think they can run things—now where had I heard that before?
Sifting through breed websites for common male or female character traits was like searching different cultures around the world, siphoning-off male-female similarities and differences and trying to put them all together. I was getting nowhere. So I went to the dog show.
Enlightenment at the Show
At a dog show in Puyallup, Wash., breeders and multiple dog owners had quick answers to my unscientific male-versus-female survey. Sheltie, Newfoundland and Siberian husky owners agreed that male dogs were more affectionate. Female dogs were described as cunning, independent and aloof.
“Girls know how to get what they want,” said one Sheltie owner.
At the basset hound ring, Holly Farthing, long-time owner/breeder said, “When it comes to field trials, the girls win more often. I’m not sure why; maybe the girls are more focused. They’re more independent. But if I could only have one dog it would be a boy because boys adore you. But I bet if you asked men which dogs are more affectionate, they’d say females.”
I suddenly realized in my quest for answers, I’d questioned only women. I hadn’t considered the person at the end of the leash as a factor in information gathering.
So, the next day I asked two men who owned female dogs which canine sex was more affectionate. “Females, of course,” they’d both answered. As if that was the obvious answer.
I hit the library next.
An Abundance of Variables
In Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior, by Roger Abrantes, I searched behaviors from A to Z and found little about male versus female character traits. But under “Leadership” I read that some scientists believe the real leader of the pack is the alpha female. Score one for the Irish wolfhounds and my bossy girl.
In The Dog’s Mind: Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior by Bruce Fogle, I read that dominance is both learned and inherited. Dogs are genetically programmed to find their place in the pecking order. Dominance-aggression is usually shown by male dogs.
In How Dog’s Think: What the World Looks Like to Them and Why They Act the Way They Do, Stanley Coren says dominance seems to be more important to males. Coren cites a 1985 survey passed out to veterinarians and dog obedience judges. Boy dogs scored higher for aggression with other dogs, dominance over an owner and higher activity levels. Girl dogs were rated high for ease of obedience and house training and were more demanding of affection. The survey didn’t reveal whether the canine behavior “experts” surveyed were men or women.
Every time I was close to a concrete answer, another variable appeared. Breed mixes, neutering, environment, learned behavior traits, and even the person at the end of the leash, factor into perceived male and female canine differences. When asked about affection, a man may see licking as affectionate while a woman pictures her big male dog squeezing right next to her on the sofa as affection. Two girl dogs in a house may fight. Two boy dogs may be best friends.
My current resident male and female bassets, Finn and Badger echo Zeke and Yazmine’s behavior patterns. Badger steals Finn’s chew toys. Finn pulls Badger’s ears until she snarls and snaps and barks in his face. Like Zeke, Finn digs holes near the deck and cruises the backyard. I hope he doesn’t find a way out or discover the bamboo.
I’m still waiting for an official canine male-female study. In the meantime, maybe every house should simply have one of each.