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Male vs. Female Dogs: Are There Any Real Differences?

World renowned behaviorist Patricia McConnell, PhD, explains.

by Patricia McConnell, PhD
June 11, 2021
Two dogs sitting on a beach
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Is there really a difference between male and female dogs? “If you want a good dog, get a male. If you want a great dog, get a female — and cross your fingers.” That old saying has been passed down through generations in a variety of fields from retriever training to sheepdog handling. But is it true? Are there significant sex-related differences in the training and performance of dogs? Trying to find legitimate answers to these questions sent me on a fascinating quest. Here's what I learned.

Male vs. Female Dogs: Are There Any Real Differences? 

The most important factor is the individual dog's personality. It is true that male dogs are typically larger and have larger heads and necks than female dogs - statistically, they are taller and weigh more. Some studies have shown that male dogs are more aggressive than female dogs, while other studies have found no significant differences. Spaying and neutering can serve to reduce some of the behavioral differences between male and female dogs. It is important to socialize and train all dogs, regardless of their sex.

The Research on Male vs Female Dogs

The first obvious source for an answer is the annals of research. Problem is, it’s only recently that dogs have migrated from persona-non-grata status in science to an animal of interest. Research on domestic dog behavior is blossoming, but most of it is about cognition and problem solving. That’s great stuff, but it won’t necessarily answer our question. I opened up my file labeled “Very Cool Dog Research” and looked at the studies within to see if any of the researchers had considered the sex of the dog as a factor. Nope.

Then I went back to the classic Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog by Scott and Fuller, first published in 1965. Are male dogs bigger than females? They found sex differences in weight gain (male dogs, not surprisingly, grow larger in early adolescence), but concentrated primarily on breed differences, rarely looking at sex as a factor in any of their experiments. They did ask if sex had an influence on what they called “emotional reactivity.” Based on their scoring system, female dogs averaged 5.0 and male dogs 4.9 — in other words, no difference at all.

Are There Behavioral Differences Between Male and Female Dogs? 

Aggressiveness and boldness, described as a behavioral syndrome, were reported as being higher in males than females. Females also seemed more inclined to interspecific social interactions with humans in tasks that require cooperative skills, whereas males appeared more inclined to social play, thus implying different levels of social engagement between the sexes, depending on the context. Studies on cognitive processes underlined a greater flexibility in resorting to a particular navigation strategy in males. 

Reports on visual focusing coherently rank females as superior in focusing on single social and physical stimuli. 

In tact male dogs are more aggressive - but depends on training and upbringing

Both male and female dogs have the ability to show aggression but the statistics
show that “entire” (not neutered) male dogs are more likely to show aggression
than female dogs or neutered males. Unfortunately this isn’t the easy answer it
might appear to be.
Entire male dogs are likely to be more competitive over things they value than
are either females or neutered males. They may be more confident in their
ability to control things they think are important and that may lead them into
conflict in situations in which their owners expect them to defer, or do as they
are told.
For example if

“male vs. female dogs behavioral”

Are Male or Female Dogs More Affectionate?

Use the keyword “male or female dogs more affectionate”

A University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine study revealed that hormone levels of oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) and vasopressin (an antidiuretic hormone linked to heightened aggression in humans) influence canine social behavior and aggression too. Interestingly, service dogs, which are bred for their easy-going temperament had higher levels of oxytocin in their blood compared to average dogs. In contrast, dogs who were more aggressive towards other dogs had more vasopressin. What isn’t known is if vasopressin levels cause aggression or are the result of aggression, but at least there is an underlying base for the behavior for more research to be done. So maybe some behavior traits aren’t a matter of gender but of other factors like hormones and as canine behavior experts say, individual temperament, genetics, breeding, socialization, environment, and leadership of pet parents.

Are There Learning Differences Between Male and Female Dogs?

At the same time, I put the question out into the universe, querying a group of certified applied animal behaviorists and veterinarians board certified in behavior. I emailed the Alasdair and Patricia MacRae, a couple who train sheepdogs and are experts in police and military dog training. In my blog,  I asked if trainers thought there were differences in learning and performance between male and female dogs. (I did not ask about intact versus neutered or spayed; more on that later.) The answers were enlightening, interesting and downright amusing. Here are some of them:

  • “Male dogs are softer.”

  • “Female dogs are softer.”

  • “Male dogs are more independent.”

  • “Female dogs are more independent.”

  • “Male dogs are easier to train than female dogs.”

  • “Female dogs are easier to train than male dogs.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Despite these contradictions, I saw some interesting trends. First of all, a great many of the respondents said that, in training and performance, the personality and background of any individual dog were more important factors than sex. Given the disparate opinions summarized above, this is a satisfying and logical statement. Looking back at the dogs in my own life, the two I am most apt to label “stubborn” were a male … and a female dog. The two who most fit the description “biddable” were a male … and a female dog. And the two I would call “quickest to learn” were — you guessed it — a male and a female dog.

Other consistencies in the responses lead to compelling questions in their own right. Many of the answers expressed the belief that male dogs mature more slowly than female dogs, describing young male dogs as “goofy,” “slow to mature,” and “less focused than female dogs” in their adolescence. This is an especially interesting observation given that in our own species, girls are known to mature faster than boys. I couldn’t find any veterinarians who knew if this was also true for female dogs, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Another contrast drawn between male and female dogs was that male dogs perform better in certain types of competition. From herding to Schutzhund to retrieving, whether we like it or not, they dominate the winner’s box. Based on their names, 12 of 15 winners of the last 15 years of International Sheepdog Trials were male and two were female (one could have been either). Since 1990, 19 dogs have won the U.S. National Open Retriever Championships. Sixteen were male dogs, two were female dogs, and one is still “unknown” (to me, that is; I’m sure someone knows!). This trend is replicable in many of the highly competitive performance sports, especially those that involve large sums of money.

Do Male Dogs Require More Training?

Use the keyword “male or female dogs easier to train”

Does It Matter If the Dogs Are Neutered?

It's challenging to tease out why male dogs perform better in competition. One logical explanation has nothing to do with the ability or competitiveness of either sex. Dog-related sports, like herding and retrieving, involve a lot of money, and in almost all of them, intact, potentially breeding male dogs and female dogs compete, never neutered or spayed animals. (This raises a complication not addressed in the original question — when we say male dogs, are we talking intact breeding males, or neutered male dogs? Given that there is so little real data on the question of sex, we’ll have to leave this aspect aside for now, but it is important to acknowledge that intact versus neutered could be an important factor.)

If you are running intact animals, as almost all high-powered handlers do in competition, the sex clearly has an effect on which sex you’re going to invest in. You can’t run a female dog when she’s in heat, and neither is it wise, or ethical for that matter, to run a female dog when she’s in the latter stages of pregnancy or nursing a litter. Who wants to invest large amounts of time and money in a performer who can do her job only half the time?

In addition, many competitors breed and train their dogs for a living. Say you own more than one top-notch performer. You will surely ask yourself which animal could best support your kennel and buy the dog food — a male dog who can be bred several times a week for a hefty stud fee? Or a female dog who might produce one (regrettably, sometimes two) litters of puppies a year?

Another explanation is that there is indeed something about a male dog that makes him more competitive under pressure. Testosterone is a powerful drug, and we know it has broad-ranging effects on assertive and aggressive behavior in species as different as rhesus macaque monkeys and mallard ducks (not to mention traders on the stock market, who are more successful if they have longer ring fingers than middle fingers — which is believed to correlate with the production of male hormones in utero. No kidding.)

How Human Perception Plays a Role

There’s another possible influence on the behavior of male and female dogs, but this time it relates to our behavior. How much of our demeanor around dogs is based on our expectations of “maleness” and “femaleness”? I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest about it, I find myself strongly influenced by the sex of a dog. I’m not aware that it affects the way I train — I believe that, with good training, individuality trumps sex or breed differences — but I’m sure it influences my perceptions of them in general. Perhaps unconsciously, it has a significant effect on my behavior, and on the behavior of all of us with cultural expectations of how males and female dogs are supposed to behave.

But are these expectations based solely on culture? Or is some of a dog’s personality determined by their sex, as with the obvious sex-related behaviors like scent marking, roaming, and interspecies conflict? Call me crazy, but I can’t help but believe there is something inherently different about male dogs and female dogs that is not just a misplaced human attribution, and that goes beyond the obvious differences. My soul mate dog Cool Hand Luke seemed so male to me that I simply couldn't imagine him as anything but a — well, a guy. My “real” guy Jim felt the same way, admitting to a tiny bit of jealousy when we first started dating, an emotion he never felt around my other three dogs (all female).

Now I have two dogs: Willie, who is one of Luke’s nephews, and Lassie, Luke’s 15-year-old daughter. I simply can’t imagine thinking of Willie as a female, or Lassie as a male. But why? Is this based on any actual sex-related differences in their behavior, or on my culturally imposed expectations? We know that expectations can have profound effects on behavior in our species. Surely, it could be true of dogs, as well.

The Bottom Line: More Research Is Needed

You see how complicated this issue can become. (And I pose only a few of the questions that this issue raises — as in “What do you mean, ‘easier to train’? Quicker to associate a sound and a behavior? More consistent once the behavior is first learned?” and the like.)

Here’s what I do know: This is a topic that calls for research. Dogs are finally coming out of the woodwork as interesting and important in our search to understand the biology of behavior, and this is a perfect vehicle for study. What’s shocking is that we know so little about canine behavior, and what’s exciting is that there is so much to learn.

I remember being a freshman in college, sitting in an introductory biology class, and thinking, “Oh gosh, everything has been discovered already.” Less than a year later, I had changed my tune, having learned how much we don’t know, and how much is discovered every year. That’s as true of canine behavior as anything else, and I am thrilled that dogs are finally getting the attention they deserve.

For example, Dr. Anneke Lisberg just completed her PhD from the University of Wisconsin on scent-marking behavior in dogs, a topic we know shockingly little about. Dr. Camille Ward completed her University of Michigan dissertation on social development and play behavior in puppies. These are but two examples of the kind of rigorous science-based studies that dogs deserve. But we need more, lots more, and I hope the trend of investing time and resources into the study of canine behavior continues to gather steam.

<H3>Do male or female dogs have more health problems?

<H3>Are male dogs more dominant?

<H3>Do female dog heat cycles cause behavioral issues?

<H3>Do male dogs mark territory indoors?

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Patricia McConnell

Patricia McConnell, PhD

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.