The Happy Humper

There is a video clip circulating the internet of a well known trainer letting a chow hump her leg. Reactions are varied from disgusted to humored. Few dog behaviors illicit such a strong response from pet owners as this one. Now I don’t know the details of the video, such as the reason the dog is being allowed to hump. Out of context it is hard to react to it. Perhaps she is teaching it as a behavior to put on cue. Perhaps she is putting an already learned behavior on cue. Or perhaps she is using an established habit as a reward. Without knowing this, and the why of the training session, it is simply a video of a dog showing a well known behavior. Though it may not always be a welcome behavior to an owner or spectator.

The important thing to remember about any behavior is that is doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Context is important. Humping is no different. For those that think it is purely a sexual behavior, females also hump other dogs and objects. This is a behavior that crosses the boundary of gender. The most common explanation of humping is that it body language that shows dominant behavior. While that can be true, it isn’t always the case. Puppies and dogs both use it during play. It has also been shown to be a response to over stimulation for some dogs. Some theories also take a possible hormone connection into consideration.

It may surprise some people to learn that dogs are not the only animals to hump each other. It is a behavior that also crosses the boundary of species. Horses, goats, cows and llamas, among others, have also been known to engage in the behavior.

What is important to know about humping is that uninterrupted it can become a bad habit for our dogs. For some it can even mean learning that it has a pleasurable side effect. (This gives new meaning to the term favorite stuffie now doesn’t it?) I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t want to clean up after that! I remember reading a true story in a book by a trainer about a mastiff that targeted women that handled him for this particular act. Due to his size and strength once started he was impossible to stop if in a one on one situation until he “finished”. In the story a new employee made the mistake of going into his kennel alone. Needless to say she learned the lesson the hard way. Because some owners find it funny, some dogs are inadvertently rewarded for the behavior with positive attention. Or at the very least the dog is allowed to let it become that long term habit.

One thing I have noticed is that many humping dogs seem to only target other dogs, or people, they are successful with. A dog that does not tolerate specific body posturing from another dog will stop the behavior before it progresses, or stop it after a few seconds. Provided of course the humpee is strong enough to repel the humper. It may even trigger fights between the dogs involved, especially if one lacks good canine social skills or misreads body language. When repelled, some dogs will continue the behavior with no solid target. Some will even hump the air when over stimulated. Dogs can also have specific targets that will stimulate the urge. My sister had a bulldog that would do it if a person’s elbow was within reach. (a rescue with an unknown history)

I myself live with a happy humper. Our pug Jenny takes liberties with our frenchie Missy when she feels the urge. Missy seems to tolerate it and just waits until Jenny decides she is finished. (When I knew I was going to write this article I stopped interrupting the behavior to see what Missy’s response would be.) It is a short session for Jenny and she seems to lose interest quickly. Canine social dynamics being fluid tells me nothing about the behavior alone for most dogs.

If I was pushed to one, because I know the dogs in question, I might conclude that Jenny is insecure and is using it as some pushy body language. But this is only one dog and in one context. It just isn’t the same for each dog. So the bottom line on humping and what it means is an unequivocal, it depends. On the dog in question: the age of the dog, the history of the dog, and of course the context of the event.

As far as changing the behavior the why doesn’t really matter much. The treatment is still the same. To prevent it from becoming an ingrained and possibly embarrassing habit, simply interrupt it and redirect the dog to another behavior. If they are trying to hump a person, have the person leave the room and everyone remove all attention to the dog. They need to learn that their behavior is what is causing the consequence of losing the attention. Remember that some dogs consider negative attention as positive simply because it is attention. Any attention is good to some dogs. (Pushing a dog off a person uses touch which can be a form of praise in the dogs perception.) You can also use times outs as a consequence or moving into their own space and then rewarding the “off” and 4 paws on the ground. (how to address the issue may depend on the dog in question, especially if working with an aggressive dog)A good solid recall can work in a group setting where other dogs may be present.

Being a possibly self rewarding habit means it won’t go away overnight. It might also mean you can only extinguish it when you are there to supervise the dogs. Again it depends on why the dog is using the behavior. Altering a dog that has already established humping as a habit unfortunately doesn’t usually stop the behavior.

So the next time your friends/relatives think it is funny that your dog is humping another dog, someone or something, ask yourself: Do you really want to live with this behavior, and possible consequenses, long term? I know I don't.