Why do dogs hump?


Owning a dog that humps furniture, other dogs or people can lead to comic, but profoundly embarrassing moments. Most people assume that the dog is a sex pest or asserting dominance. 

However, there are many reasons for a dog humping, finding the root cause can help to curtail or reduce the behaviour.

If the dog’s behaviour is causing distress, hurting people or causing dog fights then it becomes even more important to manage this behaviour. Mounting and thrusting (humping) can be part of normal play or mating, but it can also be a sign of behavioural problems or impaired welfare (1).

Uncovering the reason for humping in an individual dog involves close observation. Looking at their lifestyle, health, behaviour and triggers can help to pin down the cause. Some causes of humping are easier to manage than others. 

Sexual exploration and mating

Humping is part instinctual behaviour and part learned. Both male and female puppies do it whether practising for mating or exploring their body’s response. They find the sexual stimulation pleasurable and may masturbate by humping. It can become a high reward activity like barking, chasing or jumping. It is a normal behaviour for all dogs.

As puppies grow sex hormone levels increase and unneutered dogs will hump to mate or attempt to mate. Entire male dogs will often mount dogs of any sex, whether they are neutered or not. Female dogs mount other dogs, this happens more often when they are in season. 

Sexually driven mounting usually involves flirtatious behaviour such as alert posture, licking, play bows and chasing. Erections and even ejaculation are common in male dogs.

Neutering usually reduces mounting. One study found that castration reduces mounting by 50% in almost 70% of male dogs, regardless of age at castration(2).

Habit and pleasure

Some neutered dogs continue to hump as it gives them pleasure. Castrated dogs can still achieve erections and ejaculate so it is often a form of masturbation.

Play 

Mounting is a normal part of play behaviour, dogs may mount each other for short periods then stop and then reverse roles. It is unusual to see erection or ejaculation in these situations. As long as both dogs continue to play happily this form of mounting is a sign of a healthy relationship. Chasing, running and stalking may also be seen in normal play. 

If a dog is poorly socialised they may hump other dogs excessively and ignore resistant cues. This can cause fighting and injury. These dogs may become over stimulated very easily around other dogs. 

Stress or boredom

Humping can be a displacement activity, an out of context behaviour expressed to cope with internal conflict. This can happen when dogs are overstimulated or understimulated. The behaviour offers a release of emotion. This may be seen in dogs who have previously been neglected or abused.

Excitement

A dog may hump when the owner returns, a visitor comes or in response to another exciting event. Some dogs will present you with a toy, bark or jump when excited, others hump.

Attention 

Some owners laugh or shout at a humping puppy. This can reinforce the behaviour and make it more likely the dog will repeat it. 

Medical issues

A dog with a urinary tract infection may hump. Affected dogs often lick their genitals and appear uncomfortable. Skin allergy and infection can result in dogs’ rubbing their abdomens to alleviate the itch. Neutered and entire dogs can suffer from priapism where they have a persistent erection. This may be the result of mounting or the cause. It is important that a dog is checked by a vet prior to starting behavioural treatment for humping, in case there is a medical reason.  

Dominance?

“Dominance theory” is a controversial idea applied to inter-dog relationships. It is not clear if it can be applied to dogs as studies were done in wolf populations with limited resources. If a dog is humping objects or people, then dominance can be ruled out as a cause. People who espouse the theory suggest that dominant dogs mount other dogs as mounting is an indicator of status. However, other proponents of the theory state that dominant dogs are confidant, relaxed and don’t need to display such behaviours to assert themselves. 

What should we do about it?

If a dog humps infrequently without harm, injury or excessive embarrassment, then allow them to continue. If the behaviour is causing any difficulties for you, them or other dogs then it should be managed.

1: Work out why it’s happening

Initially, if medical reasons are suspected a veterinary examination is advisable. Neutering an entire dog usually reduces humping.

Secondly, assess the dog’s lifestyle. Is the dog sufficiently exercised, bored or understimulated? Are there stressors in the environment? An entire dog living next to a female in season will be very frustrated. A quiet dog may be overwhelmed by lots of visitors or other dogs. Some dogs are noise phobic and react inappropriately to everyday noises. 

2: Distract!

Distracting the dog at the first sign of a humping or when the trigger occurs can be very effective. A toy, chew or treat can be used to prevent the behaviour starting. The dog’s energy is redirected to more acceptable behaviour. Obedience training is excellent for this purpose. If the dog is asked to sit, give a paw or lie down and rewarded they will become more focussed and less excited. They are more likely to repeat the polite behaviour instead of humping. 

Alternatively, you can teach a stop word such as ‘leave’ or ‘stop’. If you associate this word with reward, you may be able to stop the behaviour even after the dog has started. Reinforce the command with high value treats. This can be most effective if practised at a calm time then repeated when the dog starts humping. 

If a dog humps a person’s leg, walking away or pushing them off can be effective if it is consistent. An object can be removed to prevent humping, soft toys and cushions are often victims. 

3: Address problem compulsive behaviours

If humping becomes compulsive, a dog may hump for a large part of the day. This affects their quality of life as well as causing injury.  In this case, consulting a qualified behaviourist or trainer is usually essential. Similarly, if a dog becomes aggressive when prevented from humping expert advice is required.

TL:DR:

Humping is a normal dog behaviour. Excessive humping can usually be managed to prevent harm and embarrassment with some investment in observation and training.

Share your experiences and solutions for humping dogs in the comments below, keeping it PG-13 of course.

References:

1. Bergman L. Canine Mounting: An Overview. Applied Behavior / North American Veterinary Conference Clinician’s Brief, January 2012: 61-63.

2. Neilson JC, Eckstein RA and Hart BL. Effects of castration on problem behaviours in male dogs with reference to age and duration of behaviour. (1997) JAVMA 211:180-182

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