Why Dogs are More Afraid of Men

Clients often tell me that their rescue dog must have been “beaten by a man” when the dog was younger, because the dog is afraid of men and not woman. However, people in the training and behavior field know that almost all shy dogs are more afraid of men than women, even if men have been nothing but kind to them their entire lives. We’ve always speculated that it had something to do with the way men walked (more assertively?) or their bigger chests, larger jaws, and/or deeper voices. But we’ve never really known for sure what it was–perhaps it is related to scent: obviously men smell different than woman, and it could be that just ‘maleness’ is more intimidating.

A recent study reported in Scientific American Mind might have shed some light on this topic. (Actually, I read it and jumped up exclaiming OH WOW and then had to tell Willie that everything was alright.) Research published in Current Biology asked volunteers to guess the direction of motion of figures that were represented only by points of light placed at critical joints. (Similar to the motion capture process used to make movies like Avatar in which a real person moves around with points of light attached to hips, elbows, shoulders, knees etc, and a computer records the movement of the lights.)

When watching the points of light that represented a moving figure, the volunteers said that the figures made by men were approaching, while the figures made by woman were retreating. I haven’t read the study yet, and am a bit confused by the report in Sci Amer that “neutral and masculine gaits” were perceived as coming closer, while “feminine walks” were perceived as moving away. What is a “neutral” walk? Did they not use men and woman walking normally, but asked them to exaggerate how they “thought” men and woman walk?

All this can be answered when we get the study, but assuming the methods were sound, what an interesting piece of information for us. If the critical points of men are seen as coming closer at higher rates or stronger intensity than women, no wonder dogs are more afraid of males than females. Fearful dogs are ALWAYS more afraid of something coming at them than they are at approaching something themselves.

Interesting, hey?

Meanwhile, back on the farm: It’s all about Lassie now. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kind and supportive comments. I’ll keep anyone who wants to know about her progress updated in the comments section of the Lassie post. I don’t want to burden this blog with my private soap opera, but I also know that many of you have seen and read so much about Lassie that you feel connected.

Here’s a photo I took a few days ago, of what it looks like when it gets warmer and the snow starts sliding off the roofs. I love the designs it makes:


  1. Frances says

    Very interesting. My toy poodle, Poppy, was late coming to me from her breeder, and I have been aware that we have had ground to make up in terms of socialising. She has always been very fond of large, deep voiced men, however – those who clearly remind her of her breeder, who spent a lot of time cuddling and playing with her. She is Ok with women, careful with other men, and wary of teenagers – and I know that she has never had any seriously scary experience with any of them. I must admit that her taste is usually excellent, though – sometimes wish I had her 20 years ago when I would have been in a better position to act on it!

  2. says

    so sorry about your beautiful Border collie, it happens to the best of them if they get old enough. I noticed that about men, working with shelter dogs over the years. At first I assumed some dogs were harmed by men but later on, sort of broadened my views on this depending on the situation. I had one big lab akita mix male dog who didn’t like men with sunglasses on, it took me a bit to figure that out and then I had a guy take off the sunglasses and the dog was fine with him so sometimes there are strange triggers dogs that affect dog behavior

  3. Elizabeth says

    That is really interesting. My (genetically?) shy dog has never been abused by anyone, but is definitely more afraid of men – in fact, she is now pretty much happy to sniff the outstretched hand of any stranger who is female but still shies away from males. Interesting that it may be a movement pattern. Both my sons have been away at university since we got her, and she is fine with my younger son after a day or so of a visit – treats him like she does a member of “her” family – but still runs away from my older son…but only when he moves. As long as he (or any other male visitor) is sitting she acts like a perfectly normal friendly dog, the minute they stand up or start walking around, she’s halfway up the stairs. We have wondered if the fact that my younger son is in theatre school, where he has received intensive training on how to move and noticeably moves more smoothly than his brother, makes a difference to how she perceives him. I wouldn’t think they’d be teaching him a “feminine” walk, however!

  4. Kat says

    Thanks for taking the time to post this at what I know is a very difficult time. I love these eureka moments.

    There’s a man that Ranger and I often meet on walks around the park that Ranger would shy away from until very recently. I could never figure out why until I read this. Ranger is a very dominant dog but not confrontational. When I allowed Ranger to climb onto a picnic table to meet this man Ranger didn’t shy away. The man is fairly large and tends to loom. I’m betting that when he got to be in a place that made him a closer match in size to this man the looming and sense that he was coming toward Ranger wasn’t as threatening. I’m not doing a very good job of articulating it but suddenly I’m seeing clues that weren’t there before. Thank you, this is going to help as I help Ranger navigate human society.

  5. says

    My Daisy is sometimes shy with men more so, but I think it has to do with people “looming” over her. I notice that she wants to interact with them, then they reach over her head and she backs away, then as the person starts to walk away, she’s following after them – tail wagging, etc. I try to ask people to pet her chest or let her come to them, but you know the drill, people are oblivious sometimes…..or too busy to be paying attention.

    My dog loves my friend, but one day, my friend was wearing a black coat, with the hood tied really tight around her face and was walking ahead of us, friend turned around and Daisy started barking like crazy…..finally dawned on me that she was afraid of my friend because of the coat and hood….as soon as I told my friend to open the hood – all was well….silly things that are sometimes a big deal to dogs…

    My mom had a similar experience with her dog nearly 40 years ago…she loved her dog and her dog loved her – then she went away on her honeymoon – the bahamas – came back to greet the dog and the dog jumped at her face….mom thought what the heck??? Well it took Trisha’s book, page 22 re- sunglasses – for us to figure out a 40 year old mystery about why the dog turned on her…..she was tan and wearing sunglasses….so thanks – my mother was heartbroken over this – after I explained about the whole sunglasses thing – she felt much better – imagine 40 years of wondering why this happened…

    Thanks Trisha!

  6. Alexandra says

    Very interesting! Copper, who has lived his entire life being treated with love and kindness by everyone he meets, is just fine around adult men (I made a special point of socializing him to big guys when he was a puppy). But, he is a tad bit hesitant during his first meetings teenage boys despite being otherwise extremely friendly. I know that socializing with adolescent/teenage boys was an area I missed in his puppyhood, and I wonder if that natural male-wariness causes this very slight initial hesitancy. He gets over it almost instantly, and it’s so subtle most people don’t even notice it.

  7. says

    wow. that is interesting. my female sibe was afraid of people (men mostly) but REALLY afraid of my husband. we did what the sibe rescue people told us and had him feed treats to her all the time… toss them in her direction etc. it didn’t help. it only made her fat. the only thing that helped was him training her in obedience classes. I had already gone through basics with her and graduated her through therapy service and she was becoming friendly with ALL strangers, men included. but not my husband. i really considered our pack dynamics. she really responds to me so well and is so trained for a “sibe” with me. our other rescue dog, a male GSD-mix, was an anxious dominant dog who we had first before the sibe. I realized part of her “fear behavior” was pack dynamics, as she was female and most certainly alpha when my male and she and i were together. but when my husband was home, my male gsd mix dominanted him when he greeted my husband and he allowed it. I could see the confusion with her and how it upset her. it was very clear to my male and to me that she was our alpha dog but not to my husband. we’ve been working on pack dynamics and it has improved. also, he spent months in training with her and that has help tremendously. it seems she really just wanted to be worked. to this day, knowing the “sibe breed” it amazes me that she loves training and obedience training. she loves training. she loves working. and that is what really what got her over all her fears. she still has a few and she’s still not as confident as we’d like her to be around my husband, but she’s made HUGE improvements. and I’d say much of it was training and some of it pack dynamics.

    we don’t know why she became so afraid of my husband. when we adopted her, it was him that tended to her spaying stitches and cleaned them for her. he was close to her for the first month. we think he may have frightened her one day early on when she lived wiht us while moving somehting big in our home and ever since was terrified of him (she was so scared, she ran into a wall). poor thing. but I can’t say enough how the obeidence training has made the MOST impact.

    i’m a bit cynical about the article being gender based ‘dogs more fearful to males’… because in my little anecdotal case, my fearful sibe got over general male fears, but still feared my husband until HE started working/training her.

  8. Amanda & the mutts says

    My Bailey was terrified of men when I first got him. He had LOTS of issues.

    Now, 11 years later, I think he’s figured out that they’re a good bet for a nice ear or butt scratch. At the dog park, I see him march up to men hoping for attention as often (or sometimes even more often) than women.
    I’m beginning to wonder if maybe this is the result of men being less afraid of his GSD-like physique resulting in them being more open to his advances (which leads to an ultimate reward for him). It also could be that every single one of my Uncles will pet him until their arms fall off and many of my Aunts are afraid of dogs (resulting in him ending up in a down/stay if he bothers them). Or, maybe I just did a really good job of rewarding the heck out of interaction with men for the first half of his life. Who knows.
    Regardless of WHY, I’m sure glad those fears no longer plague him.

    That study sounds fascinating.

  9. Alessandro Rosa says

    I am sorry to hear that Lassie is not doing so well. I am sure that you are very consumed right now and may not be aware of the article in New York Magazine this week (February 1, 2010) by John Homans called The Rise of Dog Identity Politcs.

    It is a well written article which brings up many points how dogs are becoming more and more “human” in our society and discusses the work of James Serpell as well as studies on Oxytocin and how dogs trigger the pair bonding response in humans.

    Another reason I mention it is that it pits you against Cesar Millan’s beliefs. “Though Millan is clearly a gifted communicator, in many mediums, ethologists like Patricia McConnell find this a simplistic view, and the dog is a very long way rom the wolf pack.”

  10. Denise says

    Interesting study. I’m trying to figure out what about my walk might be different from a male walk but since dogs are so acutely observent of details I guess even the smallest of differences stand out to them. No question that my anxious dog is more likely to accept women but oddly – or maybe not – he is also much more accepting of gay men and he’s darn good at picking them out, even when I’d never have guessed unless told at some point by the man himself. Maybe it’s just coincidence. I certainly haven’t done a scientific study, just noticed the individuals whom he liked immediately, something he certainly does not do with everyone he meets, even when they are dog savvy and behaving appropriately for meeting an anxious dog.

  11. says

    That’s a really interesting study. I hope you’ll update us if you learn more. I often work with clients with shy dogs, and regularly the dogs fear men more (and sometimes this has to do with the attitude of the men – many women and children approach in a more deferential manner). However, one common thread I see as noted by Wild Dingo is that most dogs gain confidence from learning obedience. They seem to become calmer because they know what is expected of them – if the man works with them on the training, that effect is more pronounced, probably because the dog learns what will keep that man happy and friendly.

    Also the sunglasses and hoods and movement – lots of dogs get very excited about hats and bikes and skateboards as well – it seems as if they have a mental image of how a human should look and move, and anything that deviates from that is a potential danger. I have no idea how to study that formally, but it seems like a possible area for research.

  12. Denise says

    I ran out at lunch to buy the Feb. 1 issue of New York magazine. The John Homans article that Alessandro mentions is quite interesting. Not related to this discussion but perhaps fodder for another?

  13. Carrie says

    That study sounds very interesting. My female “not quite right in the head” BC growls at women and rarely ever at men. She will melt like a puddle, granted still fearfully, when a strange man approaches, yet warns women not to come near her. She does not like when anyone acts unsure or nervous. Her anxiety feeds and grows when others are anxious. If women look like they are retreating, she may interpret their movements as anxious and that helps trigger her growling and anxiety. She is less scared when she feels like someone else is in charge and control of whatever situation she happens to be in. While she is more reactive towards women, this study (if accurate) would still seem to support an explanation for her behavior.

  14. Lindsey says

    I have a rescue Weim that is leery around tall men – age doesn’t seem to matter. She was a relinquished dog that came from a male owner, so I don’t know how he treated her, but as he had her for 5 years, I would imagine she loved him as she loves her people now. She had a bunch of bad manners and was very mouthy when we first got her and we continue to work with her (we have had her about 2 months) She seems to forget her fear/leeriness if they start treating her to baby carrots.

  15. Dena (Izzee's Mom) says

    When my husband and I went to visit a friend who lived alone with her female Great Dane, the dog took to me right away, but seemed very wary of my husband. She especially reacted to his deep voice. We suggested that he speak to her in a high baby-talk voice, and this did the trick with her.

  16. Liz Wanschura says

    I’ve often observed that, generally speaking, men approach animals (horses, dogs, cats) in a more direct, overt way than women . Some animals ( those with lots of self-confidence) are fine with this , but many are fearful or suspicious. I think, in general, that women are more willing to let animals approach them, and let them set the terms of engagement. Just an off-the-cuff observation.

  17. Jessie says

    My guess about the differences in the walks found in the study is that it has to do with hip joint angles. Men have a much more straighter angle between femur and hip, while women have a slanted angle between femur and hip. As a runner, this is pointed out to you this first time you injure yourself running! Men actually do bring their legs straight forward, while women can’t help swinging their legs out to the side a bit with each forward step. It’s all based on the angle of our hips. A man actually does make smoother, more efficient forward progress than does a woman. It makes sense that a dog would notice this, since they are the best observers of human behavior on the planet! I’m not sure what to think about how they would interpret it though. Very interesting article.

  18. Melanie Sweeney says

    Perhaps a “neutral” walk is the walk of a child under a certain age (when perhaps gender is less obvious in their gait?). Just a thought…

    What a fascinating study; great to have a little more light shed on such a commonly seen phenomenon.

  19. says

    I have a Cattle Dog Bernese mix that is very reactive and scared of SOME men…maybe 1 in 50. So I’ve been watching and noting the differences in the men’s looks, body language, etc. He’ll react if they are sitting down and he comes into the room. So forward movement seems less involved there…maybe. Just leaning could be considered “forward” I would suspect. Looking at him definitely is involved, but only by Some men. Others stare away and he doesn’t care. Big hunky guys and balding guys seem to set him off more but not consistently. The balding guy part made me suspect that elevated levels of testosterone were involved. I had read that balding is associated with elevated levels of testosterone. I also noticed that men can walk into my kennel and the dogs will go off like a siren but women walk in and they all keep laying on their beds peacefully chewing on their stuffed Kongs. I sure wish Duncan and I could have a conversation. :) Thank you Patricia for such a great blog.

  20. says

    This is an interesting topic and actually the last dog I placed, JoJo is a good example of a dog never (at least that I’ve been told and she came from her original owner who I believe) mistreated by men but who showed fear of most men. What I did discover about her though, is that if she can meet men while they are seated and she’s then let into the room after they’re sitting, she couldn’t really tell the difference between men and women and she would quickly make friends with all people she met. I have since tried this “type” of meeting with a couple of other dogs and it seems that they are more apt to say hello with less apprehension to men if they are seated as opposed to standing or walking. I think as I work with new dogs who show fear of men (usually I can spot it right off since they won’t interact with my husband) I’m going to see if the seated meeting is a much better way of dispelling a dog’s fear of men. Thanks for an interesting thread. PS. JoJo is now in a home where she met the man of the house while he was seated and she made up to him right away.

  21. Lynn Melton says

    I rescued a 3 month old shepherd that was bought by a 70 year old man and dumped in a shelter 2 weeks later, she was picked up by a rescue so I was her 4th home by then. Until we got her home she was perfect. Then, you’ve heard fight or flight? Well, she was afraid of everything and decided lunging and barking was best. I am disabled but have worked her constantly – obedience, agility, read all the books so all training was positive based using redirecting for problems. EXCEPT…she continued to get worse and worse with her fear toward my husband – and as someone said earlier, it could’ve been trained out of her with patience and training on his part BUT he was, continued to be offended by her terrible fear reactions of him, therefore wouldn’t try the methods I requested so yesterday, at 15 mos old, I rehomed her…with a man…yep, who she loves because he is gentle and patient with her and did all the things I asked of my husband that weren’t done. I am beyond heartbroken but could no longer bare to see her miserable and terrified when he was home. Now, disabled, I am without a GSD, first time in 9 + years – both of my sheps were rescues, the first also became scared of my husband the last 2 years I had her until she went missing and I never found her. My husband is moody and he got irritated at their reactions to him so I had no choice…right? I need another shepherd to work with as the possibility that I will need one fulltime eventually for mobility assistance is very likely. I know there are other breeds but since my husband is gone – truck driver – alot, and they are my preference, a shepherd is my choice. Can anyone offer advice – are there ways I can train the eventual new shep so that that fear doesn’t surface or am I just out of luck. Believe me, I also took this shepherd to 2 professional trainers prior to obedience and agility classes. Now she is the perfectly trained, smart beautiful shepherd for someone else and I’m still crying. Your suggestions are very much needed!

  22. Susan says

    We adopted a yellow lab mix three weeks ago and he is attached to me and ignores and/or fears my sweet, tall, bald, deep voiced, manly, husband…until today, when I read these blogs. My husband went right out and bought hot dogs. He microwaved one for a minute and cut it into little pieces. Our dog slowly approached him and was eating out of my husband’s hand. They are out on a walk right now. Although my husband tried bringing in big bones, treats and toys and was over the top kind to the doggie, nothing worked before this…the doggie didn’t recall that my husband is the only one who brought in the doggies favorite things. The hotdogs are a miracle. They smell yummy… to me…and perhaps to our doggie. My husband is going to continue to try this before breakfast and dinner and to walk with our pup more often without me. When this started it was heartbreaking for all of us. My kind, sweet husband was devastated by the dogs lack of interest and fear (he could be scratching the dogs neck, but if I left the room, my “shadow” would run away to follow me). The doggy was clearly not happy as he could be, with this big (sweet and well meaning) scary, bald testosterony man in the house, and it broke my heart to watch their sadness. I think we are on the right track. My husband is smiling for the first time in three weeks…and I am hopeful a few hot dogs will work miracles for our home together.

  23. Valerie says

    I have a rescue pup that I rescued at what we thought was 10 weeks old. Unfortunately, we found out later that she was only 4 weeks old and therefore had not been properly weened. She was a sweet pup, but it was difficult to coax her out of her crate as a puppy, especially for my husband who is 6’4” and quite a big man. He has a higher voice though. She shrank when men came toward her down the hall way of our apartment complex, but would then get very excited and want to go toward them after they had passed by. We went to visit my parents with her for the first time and she barked and growled and wanted nothing to do with my dad. Every dog that my parents have had strictly obeyed my father who is a very dominate person. My dad was very upset with this and was convinced it was just a defiance issue. He proceeded to chase her around the house, catch her, sit on top of her, and hold her down until she stopped fighting and screaming (yes screaming. I didn’t know dogs could even do this). She released everything that was in her bowels in the process. Afterwards, when my father told her to come she would army crawl over to him releasing her bowels along the way. It was so sad. I was so upset with my father. Could it be a defiance thing though? She is such a strange dog. she’s afraid of her own shadow at times and I am convinced she she cannot see very well (she runs into things).

  24. trisha says

    Valerie, so sorry I did not respond to this earlier. Your dog is not in any way being “defiant,” she’s simply terrified, and your father’s behavior made it much, much worse. Have you taken her to a vet to have her eyes checked? Have you told your father to go into his crate and not come out until he is better behaved? Please give us an update…

  25. says

    My Wife rescued a Tree Walking Coonhound from a kill shelter (finally named Pippen) who is around 2-3 years old. He is very timid inside but not outside as much. When I’m near he is very fearful even when I spend an hour petting him. He offer pees himself and will usually poop himself if you try to put him in the car. We are not sure how he was treated by earlier owners and are doing our best. He has become fast friends with Schatzeli our male 6year old Rhodesian Ridgeback who is a gentle soul (As long he knows you) but watches new people skeptically as Rhodies do. I really want to make this work but after 2 1/2 months feel little progress and I’m tired of acting demiure around him. We have an active family with 5 kids and Pippen is not able to come enjoy it with us.

  26. says

    Dr. McConnell,

    While reading the information about men vs. women and how their appearance/stature may attribute to the reaction a dog has to them the idea of converging and diverging lines came to mind. Men and women have a differing appearance because of a hip to shoulder ratio. I don’t know enough about a dogs perception or how they see us but I was wondering if their interpretation of the hip to shoulder ratio contributes to the general fear that dogs have of men vs women.


  27. Jason says

    It is all biological and part of the animal kingdom and human beings being stronger and more dominant than animals. Dogs are scared of me and never bark for some reason.

  28. Jos says

    My dog often barks at people who come to the door and sometimes barks at them after they’ve come into entryway or even after they come all the way in the house. (We gotta work on that) however I find that often she continues to bark at many adults while still in the entryway until they come and greet her, and barks much longer and more ferociously at any adolescent boys that come into the house. She is far more lenient with female teenagers.

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