Last updated: 31 March 2005 26 February 2004

Cats and Dogs

~ a one dimensional theory of character ~

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Warning: As with any dimension of the deconstructed gender binary, please regard this as a spectrum rather than a binary choice. Catishness or dogishness in excess is pathological, and regarding it as a binary attribute may encourage this. So rather than saying a person is a cat, or a person is a dog, say a person is strongly catish or weakly catish or neutral or weakly dogish or strongly dogish. Further notes.

People form dominance hierarchies.

While there are some nuances of character to do with our large brains (the whole depth and variety of human personality and all that), hierarchies are the main game.

Let me assure you I think dominance hierarchies, especially as usually implemented, suck. The great cultural advances of recent years -- democracy, feminism, multiculturalism -- have all had to do with flattening them. But to ignore hierarchy will not make it go away. I'll deal with defusing hierarchies later, but we first need to understand them.

There are two basic roles in a human dominance hierarchy. The roles are not "dominance" and "submission", at least not precisely. To avoid the baggage those words hold, I'll instead use an animal metaphor:

 Cat: Scratch my ear. Ex-cellent. May I use your leg as a 
     scratching post? No? Hmm, how about I sit on you instead.
     Do not move. ... Well done. Now feed me.

 Dog: Hello, let's do something. What should we do? ... 
     Yes, the stick fetching game would be acceptable. 
     ... However I find that stick you are holding uninteresting. Try 
     again. ... Ah, yes, yes! That stick I find quite exciting! Ok, I 
     will fetch the stick. ... That was fun! 

The distinction is this: cats propose things to do, dogs either accept or veto these proposals. In a hierarchy, whenever two people talk one will play the cat and one the dog. In larger hierarchies someone in the middle of the hierarchy may play the dog or the cat depending on who they are talking to.

These roles exist for a good reason: they allow coordinated cooperative action. In order for a group of people to cooperate, someone (a cat) proposes things to do, and other people (dogs) either say yes or no to the proposals. It is very hard to cooperate without performing some such exchange.

If there is more than one cat, there will be competing ideas, much argument (cat-fights), and nothing will get done. If there are only dogs, everyone will sit around looking vaguely uncomfortable, and again nothing will get done.

Though not entirely fair, dominance hierarchies are usually to the advantage of all participants. Without them, things would not get done and everyone would be worse off. There need be no element of coercion to a hierarchy, it can form even if every participant has the option of walking away.

So far, what I have said is nearly tautological -- most things people do together must first be suggested by someone or other, I've simply labeled that person as playing the cat. I now make a disturbing non-tautological observation: People have a preferred role.

People can play their non-prefered role, but it requires more effort. Some people have great difficulty switching roles, while others find it easier. A psychologist might say this is a dimension of behaviour in which people have a "set range".

This is an observation with large consequences, and I'd like you to verify it for yourself. The role people are playing in a group can be spotted with a little observation. Look for who proposes action, and who assents to it. Also look at how people phrase things. Do they suggest or command? Do they tend to speak first, or evaluate and criticize?

When doing this, remember that a bias towards catness or dogness is only expressed when people are interacting. A person on their own plays neither role. Also, a dog or cat bias is unrelated to introversion and extroversion. There are many introvert cats and extrovert dogs. It is also unrelated to creativity.

In spotting roles people are playing, I've found I can't rely on memory. If I am not explicitly looking for the roles, I tend not to remember sufficient details. So I recommend observing people anew with a minimum of preconceptions.

If my observation is correct, what are the consequences?

Relationships: C/C, D/D don't work

Cat and cat doesn't work. It's all very exciting for a while, but in the end you're going to end up fighting all the time, have a spectacular breakup, and never speak again.

Dog and dog doesn't work. You never do anything exciting together. It's all very lame, things eventually just peter out, though you stay friends. You even try getting back together once or twice. It doesn't last.

These two situations cover most of the relationship breakups that I can think of. In days past, things were simpler: the gentleman wore the cat-hat, the lady wore the dog-hat, and mostly it worked. Nowadays you have a 50% chance of stuffing up -- thus the current divorce rate.

For friendships these rules may have some exceptions, i.e. C/C and D/D friendships that work. In the case of C/C I would suggest finding a dog go-between for the occasional flare up (this might be called a "three witches" pattern).


Some examples may make this clearer.

Sluggy Freelance

      Torg - dog
      Riff - cat
       Zoe - dog
     Gwynn - cat 
   Bun-bun - cat, won't take no for an answer
      Kiki - dog, always says yes 

This explains the failure of Torg and Zoe to get it on... though possibly the new troubled climbed-the-tower-of-bone Torg will be more catty.

Weeble and Bob

    Weeble - cat
       Bob - dog

because Bob is the one who says "'k".

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

    Buffy - cat
    Giles - dog
    Angel - cat
   Xander - cat
 Cordelia - cat
   Willow - dog
       Oz - dog
   Wesley - cat
    Faith - dog
The Mayor - cat
      Dru - cat
    Spike - dog

This is an interesting example. The basic premise is a role reversal: the dumb blonde cheerleader, who would normally take a dog role in a teen-horror flick is actually a cat. The other interesting thing is that Joss Whedon, either by accident or design, managed to stuff up every single relationship in the first few seasons. Buffy and Angel are cat/cat, Xander and Cordelia are cat/cat, Willow and Oz are dog/dog. The resultant painful reshuffling made the series rather interesting. He even needed to invent a new "vampire with a soul" of the correct type, Spike.

Note also that this explains why Buffy gets on well with Giles but not with Wesley. Faith however finds Giles's leadership style unsatisfying.

As far as I can tell, in both the Buffy and Angel series, the cat/dog relationship rules allow you to predict the outcome of any given relationship perfectly.

Joss is almost certainly thinking of dog people as literally dog people: werewolves. He most likely thinks of cats by analogy to vampires.

These rules also apply to Firefly. The twist in Firefly is that the leader is a dog, indeed is explicitly named so in "The Train Job". Yes, this can work, as will be explained in the section on leadership below.

So the cat has the power?

The traditional conception of a hierarchy is that it is maintained by use of force, with the "dominant" player gaining and the "submissive" losing. This is, I think, a pathological case. Relationships are not zero-sum games, healthy relationships benefit both people. The "submissive" person has the option of walking away from the relationship (the power of veto), and walking away is a significant threat to the "dominant" person since they will be less well off on their own.

The person playing the cat can abuse a relationship by proposing things that mostly benefit themself. But the person playing the dog can also abuse it by stubbornly vetoing everything that isn't tilted their way.

From a classical economic or game theory perspective, the cat and dog roles are simply a protocol for negotiatation. Given sufficient time to discuss options, the outcome would be the same whatever the assignment of roles.

However, most people don't have sufficient time to discuss every last detail, they just want an outcome that is good enough. This gives an inadvertant advantage to the cat: the cat knows their own likes and dislikes, but has limited knowledge of the dog's likes and dislikes, and will therefore propose actions that serve their own interest better.

So there is a natural imbalance of power, but it is mainly due to insufficient communication and can be corrected once recognized. The imbalance is a much worse problem in large groups, where it would take much more discussion and negotiation to learn the likes and dislikes of all members.

Role forcing

("stuff the ideology, what about the Super-Jedi mind powers?")

With a little thought, you can adopt one or the other role when talking to someone. This forces the person you are talking to into the other role. But be prepared for a fight if they don't want to play that role!

You can adopt the cat role by making suggestions. The trick here is that even if someone rejects a suggestion, they have adopted the dog role:

  You: "Let's eliminate all taxes."
 Them: "That is a stupid idea."
  You: "Bwahahaha! Now I control the agenda!"

Another way to adopt the cat role is to suggest that the person do something just before they would have done it anyway.

You can adopt the dog role by refusing to make a choice:

 Them: "What shall we eat?"
  You: "Food."
 Them: "What kind of food?"
  You: "Edible food."
 Them: "Argh! Ok, how about Subway?"
  You: "Ok."

Other people will also (consciously or subconsciously) try to adopt a role. With a little linguistic footwork, you can sidestep this:

 Them: "Have a seat."
  You: "Let's sit down."
 Them: "Ok."

(avoid the temptation to say "ok, let's sit down" or "yes, let's sit down")

 Them: "Would you like a glass of lemonade?"
  You: "What else is in the fridge?"
 Them: "Water, coke, lemonade, and beer."
  You: "I would like a lemonade."
 Them: "Ok."

 Them: "I'm bored, what should we do."
  You: "Well, we could see a movie, or we could rent a DVD, or go for a bike
        ride, or go shopping... I don't know."
 Them: "Lets go see a movie."
  You: "Ok."

Adopting the cat role has obvious advantages. What about the dog role?

In an argument, both people try to be cats. Trying to win an argument just makes your opponent more stubborn. But you can sometimes get what you want by playing the dog:

 Them: "Oooh, a scary cave. You first."
  You: "No, you first."
 Them: "No, you first."
  You: "Help! I don't like making decisions!
        Which of us shall go first?"
 Them: "I will be polite and go first...
        argh, it is full of snakes and crawly things."
  You: "A good thing I didn't go first then."

In a group with a (cat) leader, a member of the group (or even an outsider) will be better able to influence the leader by phrasing things from the dog role:

  You: "You should add bells to your open source software project."
 Them: "Oh no, a challenge to my leadership!
        I will squash you like a bug now."

(not that i would ever behave like that... (blush))


  You: "I'm using your software, and we have this situation that needs bells."
 Them: "Let us now add bells to the software."
  You: "Ok."

Cognitive style

Proposing things to do involves a different kind of thinking than criticism; there may be differences in the cognitive style of the cat and dog roles.

When coming up with a proposal, one has to consider a wide range of possibilities. This may mean considering each possibility only shallowly; there's an element of intuition. To make a chess metaphor, it's like considering a whole lot of different moves one could make and finding one that feels good.

There are only two options when evaluating or criticising, yes or no, so one may consider each option in depth. This is a more methodical rational process than coming up with a proposal. In chess, it is like looking at a couple of plausible moves and determining what sequence of moves would result from each.

This difference in style may explain why people have a prefered role: they have specialized in it as a particular cognitive skill.

Leadership: first word and final word

There are two distinct styles of group leadership: leaders who have first word, and leaders who have final word. Some groups may require both types of leadership, though never at the same time.

For the leader to have first word seems more natural, and is certainly more common. Here the leader plays the cat and everyone else plays dog. This is a good style for groups that need to be tightly disciplined and coordinated, such as a military platoon or an orchestra. It isn't so good for things that require creative solutions, as it allows only the leader to be creative.

For creative endeavours, it is better for the leader to have final word rather than first word; for the leader to play the dog and everyone else to play the cat. Then everyone in the group can contribute their personal brand of creativity. The leader's role is to filter out bad ideas and form the good ideas into a coherent whole. This style of leadership may be seen in successful open source projects and on successful group or community web-sites.

  Programmer: Here is a patch that allows Linux to do something cool.
              Would you add it to the Linux source code?
       Linus: It is indeed cool. Ok, I will apply it.

The title "arbiter" may be used in such situations to avoid confusion with traditional leadership. Or simply "judge". In fact, if you're uncomfortable comparing people with animals, you might call this whole theory a theory of "leaders and judges".


When teaching a class, the teacher naturally takes the cat role. Therefore, the students are in the dog role, and adopt the dog cognitive style.

 Brian: "You are all individuals."
 Crowd: "Yes, we are all individuals."

Most of the time, this assignment of roles is correct. However when teaching a creative or assertive skill (for example, programming or feminism), it may be important for students to practice using the cat cognitive style: they will need to use this style when applying what you teach.

Simply asking questions of your students will not put them in the cat role, as it is still you that initiates action. Thus, asking questions is not a good strategy for waking students up and getting them engaged, something that causes much frustration to teachers.

I once had a lecturer called Damian Conway (yes, that Damian Conway) who avoided taking the cat role by making his students set the agenda. At the start of the lecture, he would ask for questions, which he would then write on the blackboard. This took a little coaxing, usually when you go to a lecture your brain has switched to idle before your bum hits the seat. He then ad-libbed the lecture from these questions. (It's no good to ask for questions at the end of the lecture, by then everyone is comfortably in dog mode.)

Another way to flip roles is to do something blatantly and obviously stupid, and hope someone points it out.

 Performer: "Where has it gone? Where-ever can it be?"
  Audience: "Behind you! Behind you!"

Defusing hierachies

Hierarchies usually benefit all, but they also usually benefit some more than others. The fat-cats always seem to get the cream. How can we fix this?

In an earlier version of this essay, I advocated learning to switch between cat and dog roles as necessary. I have now come to suspect that this is difficult.

It should be possible to influence people's preferred role when they are young, so one thing that can be done is to ensure no particular segment of society (eg a gender or a race) is driven into a particular role, and that cats and dogs are produced in approximately equal measure. Two examples of where this has gone wrong in the past:

The other thing I would advocate is greater use of dog leadership. Leadership different in kind, but equal in power. It is even possible to use both cat and dog leadership within a single hierarchy, with each level of the hierarchy having both a cat and dog leader. An example of this can be seen in the "Society for Creative Anachronism" which enstates couples (not necessarily actual couples, but two people who work together) in the higher levels of its hierarchy: king and queen, baron and baroness, etc.

Weblog entries on Cats and Dogs

28 July 2005, 7:40 UTCKarl Fogel explains how to herd cats
29 March 2005, 22:48 UTCI am a dog
27 September 2004, 6:49 UTCTrinity, authority, free will
28 July 2004, 23:12 UTCDogs are problem posers
24 June 2004, 8:43 UTCShrek is a cat person, Fiona is a dog person
18 June 2004, 23:35 UTCOrson Scott Card's "Wise Reader"
1 June 2004, 23:17 UTCComplex reality, simple theories
23 May 2004, 1:26 UTC"Cats and Dogs" updated
19 April 2004, 23:52 UTCCreativity
8 April 2004, 4:24 UTCThe real Episode VI
30 March 2004, 7:41 UTCDogs in top jobs
20 March 2004, 23:36 UTCHoward Dean and Simon Crean
26 February 2004, 0:00 UTCCats and Dogs