So one of our readers asked us this question the other day: Can dogs tell the difference between male and female humans, either by sight or smell? If so, do they behave differently towards men and women?
The answer to both of your questions is yes! It seems that dogs can and do distinguish humans by gender through a combination of sight, sound, and smell. Of course, it’s impossible to gauge exactly how this categorization by (human) gender takes place in the thinking/instincts of the dogs, but the point is that the effect is real and is reflected in the behavior of the dogs. For example, dogs tend to be more aggressive towards men than women. To cite the conclusion of a recent paper:
“Although the bases of this ability remain to be established, our observations suggest that dogs can categorize human gender in both visual/olfactory and auditory modalities. This is consistent with reports that dogs behave differently towards unfamiliar people depending on their gender, often by responding more negatively towards men (Hennessy et al., 1998; Lore & Eisenberg, 1986; Wells & Hepper, 1999), including biting men significantly more often (e.g. Rosado, García-Belenguer, León, & Palacio, 2009). While there do not appear to be gender differences in owner attachment levels towards dogs (Prato-Previde et al., 2005), male and female owners do differ in their interaction style with dogs, as men speak to their dogs less frequently (Prato-Previde et al., 2005) and are less likely to perceive their dog as being stressed (Mariti et al., 2012). It is possible that gender-specific behavioural differences may create a need for dogs to categorize men and women in order to adapt their responses appropriately. Determining more specifically how and why dogs learn to categorize men and women has important practical implications for understanding their responses to different people. While our study has demonstrated that multisensory cues, including vocal cues, are associated by dogs, we have yet to determine which specific cues are used and how these may influence responses.”
- Ratcliffe V.F., et al, Cross-modal discrimination of human gender by domestic dogs, Animal Behaviour, 2014: 91, pp. 127–135 (link)