Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.
The Very Basic Concern
I walked my dogs to the local dog park the other day, and the amount of humping I witnessed was both immeasurable and indiscriminate. Male dogs were humping and being humped, female dogs were humping and being humped, human legs were being humped — I even saw one dog hump a freaking water fountain. Frankly, I felt like I was at Hump Fest 2019, and I was so incredibly confused by what was motivating all these dogs to get their grind on.
Basically: Why do dogs hump everything?
The Expert Advice
Mark Derr, dog expert and author of How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog’s Best Friend and A Dog’s History of America: It seems to me that dogs have different motivations. We had a Chesapeake Bay retriever many, many years ago, who was an avid crotch sniffer, especially when women would come into the house. It was so obnoxious, we finally had him neutered — for that and other reasons — and that stopped his crotch sniffing.
We have a female Jack Russell terrier now, who’s seven years old this month. She likes to hump my lower legs if I have them stretched out in front of me. She might do it with male visitors, too. Some people would say that’s a desire to exert her dominance, but frankly, I’m hard-pressed to see how a 14-pound dog can be dominant over a 180-pound male. My wife thinks that she does it as a masturbatory undertaking, and that’s entirely possible — she seems to enjoy it. It’s a ritualistic behavior, she does it at a certain time each day, after she’s been playing catch with her little toy.
The received wisdom used to be that it was a dominance act, usually by a male dog. But dogs seem to be kind of indiscriminate fornicators in many ways: For instance, I’ve seen a male husky on the Iditarod go at it with his male running mate. They seemed to enjoy it.
Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of more than 1,000 essays on animal behavior, including Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do: The way I look at it is, it depends on the individual dog and the context. In far more hours than anybody would want to admit to where I watched dogs on leashes — but mostly free-ranging dogs at dog parks and hiking trails — there’s just not one reason.
I had a dog who humped a water bowl, and a friend of mine down the road when I lived in the mountains had a dog who liked to mount and hump a basketball. In those cases, I can’t think of any reason, other than maybe they enjoy it as a form of self-play, similar to chasing their tail. I have some videos of dogs playing, because I studied them for decades, and when I look at them every now and again, it kind of looks like they find themselves in this position and that’s what they do. In animal behavior, there are certain behaviors elicited that are thoughtless, if you will. They wind up in that position, do a little humping, only to shrug their shoulders and go, “Oh, okay.” Then they’re off as if nothing had just happened.
Sometimes dogs find themselves in this position and something elicits the response. They might get stimulated on their stomach or groin, and that sets it off. I watched an eight-week-old coyote that was running around and landed on a rock, and there he went, humping away.
Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club: Here are several reasons as to why dogs and puppies mount or hump:
- Excitement: Humping can be a sign of extreme excitement and is a common behavior seen in play, especially in places like dog parks. It’s a commonly seen response when dogs play together.
- Stress: Dogs who are feeling nervous or anxious may also mount other dogs or even objects near them, like a throw pillow. It’s important to identify what might be causing your dog stress. You’ll likely also notice him or her panting, yawning or showing other lesser-known signs of anxiety if that’s the cause for the behavior.
- Attention: Some dogs may hump because they’re looking for attention from their owner. If a dog is humping a person’s leg, it’s likely the person will reach down to push him away or pick him up. By doing so, that person is rewarding the dog for the behavior. Even by responding with what most owners would see as a clear refusal of attention — e.g., pushing away or scolding — the dog learns that humping will get a response from his owner.
- Medical Condition: Certain medical conditions, such as urinary tract infections or even allergies, can be causing your dog to hump more often than usual.
- Social Status: Mounting can also be a sign of dominance among dogs. Dogs will sometimes attempt to mount other dogs in a social setting to see which dogs will allow it and which won’t. Unfortunately, this behavior can sometimes lead to dog fights and should be discouraged.
- Sexual Behavior: Puppies may hump as “practice” for future sexual activities, and intact dogs may use it as a form of flirting to entice mating. Spaying or neutering a dog may decrease this behavior, especially in males, but it’s common for even sterilized dogs to mount for pleasure.
Zazie Todd, animal psychologist and author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy: Humping is a normal behavior for dogs. It can feel really embarrassing if a dog comes to hump our legs, or even if they go and hump something else. But we’re the only ones who are embarrassed — the dog isn’t. So although we might not like it, it’s nothing to worry about. Similarly if your dog is humping another dog, so long as the other dog is okay with it, that’s nothing to worry about, either.
Humping can obviously be a sexual behavior, but dogs hump in play and can hump because they’re excited or stressed. It can also be a displacement behavior that occurs when the dog has conflicting emotions, such as wanting to approach a new person but also finding it stressful to do so. Pay attention to your dog to figure out why it’s happening, and see if there’s a pattern to when it occurs. You can also learn to recognize the signs when they might be about to start humping and ask for another behavior instead, like sitting. Of course, you can always just laugh and ignore it if you wish.
But don’t yell at your dog for humping, because it’s a normal thing for dogs to do — and because yelling at dogs can stress them out. Once you’ve identified the situation(s) when it occurs, you can train them to do something else instead. For example, suppose your dog is humping people when they come to visit your house because they get so excited about visitors. Decide what you’d like them to do instead, such as sit and wait to be patted, or go to their mat and wait there.
Then use positive reinforcement to train them to do it. Make your training plan nice and easy and build up gradually, because if your dog gets really excited about visitors, they’ll need a lot of practice to be able to reliably do the new behavior. You can also give the dog a short timeout for humping, but this doesn’t get you out of training — you should still train a different behavior that you’d like them to do instead.
Since dogs can sometimes hump when they’re anxious, if you notice that your dog is stressed or fearful when visitors arrive, it would be a good idea to hire a dog trainer to help them become more comfortable with visitors. In the meantime, manage the situation by keeping them in another room when people come to your house.