For about six years, I’ve been working in independent pet supply stores. I enjoy the chance to interact with other people’s dogs, especially since I can’t have one of my own right now. After a few years in this business, I noticed an extra bonus that comes along with this particular environment: people project a lot of their thoughts and feelings about gender onto their dogs, and they generally state these thoughts much more openly than they probably would if I were to ask them directly. It’s always interesting, if sometimes a little awkward, to have these conversations with customers.
Most of these comments come up when customers are shopping for new dog accessories: collars, leashes, that sort of thing. Many dogs will never wear much other than a collar, so that acts as the dog’s clothes for the most part. The world of dog collars isn’t quite as gendered as its human-clothing counterpart, but the same rules in terms of color or design hold true for many manufacturers and customers. Some will never give a thought to which collar or leash they should pick out beyond “is this a style or design I think looks nice,” but many people really agonize over the decision.
This gendered collar selection seems to follow two general patterns. First off, you have the customers who want to choose something appropriate for the sex of the dog in the same way I imagine people choosing clothing colors for babies. They ask, “do you have cute harnesses for a boy dog?” or “I like this, but do you have a girlier color?” I’ve seen customers gush over how much they like a particular design or color but say they could never make their dog wear it specifically because of the dog’s sex, with the implication that the dog will be embarrassed somehow, or that it just isn’t right. On multiple occasions, I’ve heard someone say “I can’t do that to him!” while admiring a collar with cupcakes or pastel colors, as if they would be forcing something unpleasant on the dog. Just like with people, it seems more acceptable to buy a manly/neutral collar for a female dog than to get one that’s even semi-girly for a male dog.
Sometimes the difference between what a customer sees as male vs. female-appropriate colors is easy for me to understand, but other times it’s utterly confusing. I remember one male customer who was shopping for a leash for his male dog and was irritated that the red and black leashes were out of stock, forcing him to choose between the “girly” colors of kelly green and dark purple. I can see dark purple as being, if not explicitly feminine, a “gay” color in the minds of some people, but I don’t know why a plain, medium-tone green wasn’t manly enough for him.
The second group of customers is looking for appropriate colors as well, but less because they want to avoid “making” the dog wear the wrong thing. These are people who want to make sure strangers don’t make the wrong assumption about the sex of the dog. I’ve heard many variations on “I am tired of people thinking my dog is a boy/girl” over the years, most often from owners of female pit mixes, Boxers, or other dogs that are, in the general imagination, seen as tough or masculine. This desire to make sure the dog isn’t misidentified often comes up as something the owner feels sorry for the dog for – they’re trying to spare the dog a different kind of embarrassment than the folks mentioned above. I suppose it’s like someone trying to spare their daughter the shame of being called a boy vs. dressing her up in a tuxedo? As a side note, I sometimes wonder if strangers who used to think “oh what a cute male dog” would think “what a cute male dog in a bright pink harness” or would indeed now think “what a cute female dog.” I’m not sure what cues most people use to determine a dog’s sex, because when I’m not sure I just flip my head over and check its underside. (I would never use the genital-check as a way to make conclusions about people, but for dogs it’s ok. This only fails if a dog is particularly fluffy underneath, so it works for me about 90% of the time.) This might be an interesting question to ask – do most folks do the underside-check as well, or are they drawing conclusions based on the breed or temperament? Perhaps the collar or leash style does make a difference for some people.
Sometimes, if a customer is holding something like a pink collar and says “I don’t think I can make my boy dog wear this,” I’ll ask them “what if he’s the sort of boy that wants to wear pink?” This has gone over with varying levels of success, although I think it works best on days when I’m wearing my bright pink Unity Conference t-shirt and can stand as an in-person example that boys like that do exist (side note: when did I start liking pink? It is SO WEIRD.) There was a woman who was hesitating over buying her male cat a pink collar, but after she noted that I looked good in my pink shirt, she decided to get it even though she thought her husband might be irritated by it.
This isn’t exclusively a collar or leash issue, either – I had someone ask if we had “girly balls” this week (yes, with that exact wording), and there was a customer a few weeks ago who wanted my opinion on whether a toy was red or pink before he’d buy it for his male dog. Again, he said something about how he “couldn’t do that” to his dog if the toy was, indeed, pink. It was a pretty ambiguous shade, but he eventually decided it was red enough and did buy it.
Most of the concern for what items to buy seems to center on what’s considered proper for the dog to wear, but I’ve helped several women who were concerned with making sure a leash wasn’t too girly for their boyfriends/husbands to carry. Seriously. The first time I encountered this, someone returned a collar/leash/harness set in what I had always thought was a neutral-to-masculine design (it’s “muddy paws” halfway down this page) because her boyfriend had refused to walk the dog if he had to hold that leash. For starters, it’s a blue and brown leash with pawprints on it. How is that “girly?” I may think it’s silly, but the blue = boys color-coding system has been around for several decades now. I’m also not sure how much anyone focuses on the leashes held by dog-walkers on the street. I am the sort of person who is always on the lookout for dogs in my daily life, and when I see them, 80-90% of the time I have no clue what the dog’s collar or leash looks like because I’m too busy focusing on how cute the dog is. Most likely, people either are so into dogs that they’re checking out the dog like me or are dog-neutral and don’t really notice anything at all about the dog or its walker. Setting aside that fact and my assumption that someone who’s that fixated on maintaining his macho image (or perhaps his heterosexual house of cards) would probably be a huge pain in the ass to date, why not buy your own damn leash if it’s that much of an issue? I can’t imagine making someone I was dating return a leash she bought because I didn’t want to be seen carrying it. That was the only time someone returned anything for this reason, but I’ve helped several customers who rejected collars or leashes on the grounds that their male partners might object to using them.
The same position that allows me to hear all of these comments keeps me from fully reponding to them; I’d love to ask customers why it’s so important that strangers identify their dogs correctly but I am aware that most people don’t want to be questioned on their thoughts about dogs and gender presentation when they’re on a shopping trip (or perhaps ever). The closest I come to challenging anyone’s statements are when I make comments like I mentioned above or just flat-out say “your dog won’t care what the collar looks like as long as it’s comfortable.”
If I did end up having a real conversation with any of these customers, what would that sound like? It’s possible that the owners are making these decisions out of their own sense of discomfort when imagining what it would be like to be mis-pronouned or mistaken for a different gender. Maybe it’s because they’re over-anthropomorphizing the dog and imagine that it has a sense of its own gender that mirrors their own. A lot of it is probably just due to the fact that binarily-gendered thinking and marketing are everywhere and most people get sucked into it on some level, and don’t always stop to think about how ridiculous it is to pretend that a dog cares what its collar looks like. A dog has no gender identity, at least not in any way that’s related to how humans do. As long as you give it a long walk, belly rub, or bully stick* at the end of the day, your dog will still love you no matter what its collar looks like.
*Bonus fun: telling customers what a bully stick actually is. My favorite way to explain it is “it’s a tendon from the part of a bull the cow doesn’t have.” Some guys will drop it like it’s on fire and refuse to buy one, either because they have sympathy pain or because they think it’s too gay to have their male dog chewing on part of a bull’s penis (again, I am completely serious; several people have said this to me). On the other hand, there was one customer in the store I managed in NC who loved the idea of bully sticks. She’d come in and yell “I need some dicky sticks,” wave them at her partner, and would often tell us as she was checking out how hilarious it was that her dog loved chewing on dried penis tendon.