Baker: Why do dogs hump? It’s not what you think
Dog Training 101
Humping is a common behavior in dogs and is seen in both males and females, whether they are fixed or not. While it is most often attributed to dominance, nothing could be further from the truth. Dominance refers to priority access to a resource, and I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access to food, toys, space, or anything else valuable to the dog. So, why do dogs hump? Here are the most common motivations behind humping in dogs and what to do about it:
Play: All puppies hump. It’s part of normal play. Some biologists believe that play is practice for the real world. Unless a dog/pup is particularly targeted or clearly agitated by it…let it go. If the puppy doing the humping can’t stop…then it isn’t part of play and belongs in the arousal/anxiety category below.
It just feels good: Frankly, dogs just like to hump sometimes. All mammals masturbate, and some dogs will hump a favorite toy or pillow. From a behavioral standpoint, there’s no reason not to let Fluffy have a little “me time” on occasion behind closed doors as long as it’s not causing problems.
Reproduction: This is obvious. A bitch in heat will create humping. No explanation needed. Unless you are planning a litter of puppies, keep male and female dogs separated during a heat cycle. Better yet, have the dog fixed, and adopt a rescue dog.
Anxiety/Arousal: The number one reason dogs hump is anxiety where humping is merely a symptom of a much larger problem. Anxiety leads to arousal, and that leads to humping because that energy has to go somewhere; dogs have limited choices on what they are allowed to do or what they can do. Technically, canine behavior experts call this a “displacement” behavior. When the dog becomes anxious, Fluffy may scratch, sniff, dig, or hump. People display displacement behaviors too (although luckily humping is not usually one of them!): we check our phones, play with our hair, or look away when we are in socially uncomfortable situations.
In order to fix the humping problem, you need to help Fluffy overcome those feelings of anxiousness. Become an ethologist. Get out a pen a paper, watch and write down events before and after the humping begins. There are a number of reason a dog can become anxious or stressed: guests coming into the house, more than one dog at play, stress from noises, smells, proximity to scary things, being punished, being separated, the list goes on. If we use guests coming over as an example of Fluffy groping every leg he sees, then we need to make Fluffy relax about strangers in the house. (A whole other article at a later time or time to call a science based trainer) In short, first you need to teach relaxation behaviors such as laying on a mat. Then desensitizing the actual entrance of guests into the home. Teaching a dog what is expected of them in a certain situation (and making that behavior rewarding), enables relaxation. Once relaxed, the humping goes away.
Clearly, there isn’t a single explanation or solution for humping. Humping is a normal behavior pattern so let’s not allow our own discomfort to get in the way of dog doing what comes naturally. You can turn away, pretend it isn’t happening, or giggle nervously and let them be dogs. You can also help the anxious pup feel less stressed in their environment instead of punishing the symptom. One thing is for sure though, dogs hump because they can.
Victoria Baker provides gentle, modern, science-based training for dogs and their people. She teaches reward-based, force-free dog training to families in the Grand County area.
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