Ask the doctor Dear Dr. Stanley,
In a discussion with a colleague of mine from the United States yesterday, I was confused by the way he referred to my dog Susi. While talking about my dog, he used the word "she." I was a little bit surprised by this - I guess I thought he should have said "he". Maybe my feeling was caused by the way the "der/die/das-Geschichte" in German functions, but in any case I don't really have a good idea about how to talk about animals when using "he", "she," or "it" – I guess when using pronouns? Can you give me some help?
Cornelia Schmidt
Remagen, Germany

Dear Cornelia,
Thanks for the question.
I seems to me that you are asking about the use of personal pronouns when talking about animals in English. I suspect your confusion was in fact caused by the way your choice of the correct personal pronouns in German is dictated by the gender of the noun. As you surely know, we don't have those structures in English, so that we do not have to think about if the noun "dog" or "horse" has a masculine or neuter gender – for us, they are all "it".
Well, sort of. There is an exception that is, however, much like in German. If you know the animal and know its gender, then you use "he" if it is a male animal, ">she" if it is female. Generally, if the animal has a name, then you should try to make sure you know its gender and use the appropriate personal pronoun. If, by contrast, you are talking about a bird flying in the sky or a bear in the woods, then it does not have close contact to human beings and, therefore, has no name. Then we usually have no way of knowing whether it is male or female and have to resort to "it." The important thing to notice here is that the gender of the personal pronoun is not determined by the gender of the noun, but by the actual gender of the animal.
When your colleague used "she" to talk about "Susi", he either knows your dog and therefore her gender, or he was working on the assumption "Susi" can only be used for a female dog and therefore chose the correct personal pronoun when referring to her.
I hope this helps!
Take care,
John Stanley