- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
If you’re considering adding a new dog to your family, you probably have a lot of questions about the kind of dog you should adopt, what you should look for before you bring a new pet into your home, and what different traits might mean for their temperament and personality. After all, you’re adding a new member to the family—you want to make sure they fit in wonderfully.
Another big question that comes up for a lot of prospective pet owners: Should you get a male or a female dog? Well, on that front, we’ve got some helpful insight to consider. We talked to a vet and a professional dog trainer to learn more about the differences between male and female dogs and help you figure out which might be the best for you.
Holistic vet, scientist, and author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide, Dr. Gary Richter says that broadly speaking, a dog’s sex has little bearing on their suitability as a pet. “That shouldn’t be a major factor in the decision-making process,” Dr. Richter notes. “Meet the dog and see if their personality fits with yours.”
He adds that a good fit between dog and owner is more likely to be dependent on other factors. “You need a dog whose energy level and demeanour fit with your lifestyle.”
That view is shared by Nicole Ellis, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), and coauthor of Working Like a Dog. She says that the most important influence on personality and compatibility with humans “is not male or female but how a dog is trained and what it’s exposed to.”
The sex of the dog you adopt might not be a strong indicator of how well they fit into your family. However, both experts note that there are some differences you might want to be aware of before you adopt.
Let’s start with the obvious—male and female dogs have different reproductive and genital systems. But there are also some more subtle differences you might consider. Nicole Ellis says that male dogs tend to be larger (both in height and weight) than female dogs—so you might keep that in mind if the size of your dog is important.
According to petMD, female dogs also tend to reach maturity faster than males, which may mean that a female dog is more mature than a male dog of the same age and might be easier to train as a result.
Nicole Ellis notes there are very few differences between the sexes when dogs are young. “As they get older, and hormones come into play,” she adds, “you begin to see a difference. But still, often these differences are not that major.”
Many of the biological differences between male and female dogs are tied to their reproductive hormones. However, Dr. Richter says that while a dog’s behaviour can be influenced by hormones, if you remove their source by spaying or neutering the dog, you’ll see less of the behaviour over time.
Spaying or neutering removes the dog’s ability to reproduce, affects the development of sex-associated traits and behaviour, and, ultimately, helps reduce overpopulation. Male dogs are neutered, which means they undergo an orchiectomy—a medical procedure to remove the testes. Female dogs are spayed, which means they undergo an ovariohysterectomy—a medical procedure to remove the ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus.
This procedure prevents the dog from reproducing, and also reduces some of the behaviours associated with mating.
An intact female dog (that is, a dog that hasn’t been spayed) will experience oestrus two times a year. This is also commonly called “the heat cycle.” Going into heat means that the dog is able to carry a litter, and her body will produce a secretion that attracts male dogs. A spayed dog won’t experience a heat cycle and will not be interested in reproduction.
Nicole Ellis cautions that if you don’t want your intact female dog to get pregnant, you need to keep her away from other dogs while she’s in heat.
She adds that male dogs who have not been neutered will be more likely to mark their territory. “If you aren’t neutering your male dog,” she says, “be prepared that he has an innate urge to pee and mark everything.”
Intact male dogs might mount people, other dogs, or inanimate objects, and they might even escape to look for a mate and endanger themselves in the process. A neutered dog will be less likely to mark his territory, mount, hump, or roam.
In addition to reducing overpopulation (which, the RSPCA says, leads to many homeless dogs) and preventing unwanted behaviours, spaying or neutering can have health benefits for your dog.
According to petMD, spaying female dogs can help prevent health problems like mammary cancer or uterine infections and neutering male dogs can protect them from benign prostatic hyperplasia and testicular cancer. Some diseases are more common in dogs who have been spayed or neutered, but petMD says that the benefits of the procedure outweigh the risks and that most vets recommend it.
Dr. Richter adds that the timing of the procedure can have an effect on your dog’s health, too. In the past, he says, most vets have recommended spaying or neutering early (before the dog reaches puberty) to prevent the development of unwanted behaviours. However, there has been recent evidence that it’s best to wait until the dog reaches physical maturity.
The effect of waiting until maturity seems to vary from breed to breed, but in general, Dr. Richter says that dogs spayed or neutered later in their development have fewer orthopaedic issues and are less likely to develop certain types of cancer.
According to Nicole Ellis, there aren’t many differences in (non-mating-related) behaviour that are determined by the dog’s sex. She does note that a recent study on dog aggression found that “male dogs were six times as likely to bite compared to female dogs.” But she emphasised that “it’s not as black and white as that and a lot more comes into play—including the dog’s training and upbringing.”
Dr. Richter says that many of the reported behaviour differences between male and female dogs can be chalked up to anthropomorphism. “A lot of it is human projection,” he says.
However, he says that one reported behaviour that does seem to be accurate. “Dogs tend to get along better with dogs of the opposite sex,” he says, when they’re living together in a home. “It’s like yin and yang.” So, if you’re adding a second dog to your family, you may want to consider creating that balance for a more peaceful household.
Ultimately, both experts agree that the dog’s sex is relatively unimportant when you’re selecting a new pet. Instead, focus on meeting the dog, learning as much as you can about their past experiences, and considering how they will fit in with your lifestyle. The most important step is making sure that your new pet’s personality, activity level, and intelligence are a good match for you and any other pets you have in the home.