The Down & Dirty on Humping: Sex, Status, and Beyond

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Humping is primarily a sexual behavior.  This is pretty obvious given its role in reproduction, and is generally accepted right across the spectrum of training philosophies. What is less agreed upon, and sometimes even quite hotly debated, is why dogs hump in what looks like non-hanky-panky situations, when humping should be considered problematic, and what to do when the behaviour is unwelcome.

Humping As A Hard-Wired Behavior Pattern
Humping is one of several pre-programmed behaviour scripts that most dogs are born with called fixed action patterns (FAPs).  What makes FAPs unique is that they are triggered by the dog’s environment without requiring any prior learning.  No wonder some 3-month-old prepubescent tykes hump a littermate or a pillow for the very first time like an old pro!  These FAPs come pre-installed for good reason – they all relate to essential survival skills: fighting, escaping danger, reproducing, and eating. Necessary stuff indeed, however, today’s domesticated dogs rely much less on these survival skills than their wild counterparts.  This, combined with strong selection for certain behaviors in certain breeds, is the reason why there is so much variation in the number and strength of these behaviour patterns. This explains why not ALL domestic dogs are humpamaniacs, car stalkers, or Frisbee fanatics.

One of the interesting things about humping, and other FAPs, is the way they tend to pop up outside of their primary context. For example, most dogs are triggered to chase by a quickly retreating object or animal.  The primary role of this FAP is clearly to enable feeding through predation.  However, there are oodles of situations where this FAP is triggered that do not actually involve hunting down lunch, such as chasing a retreating dog, the household cat, or a tennis ball.  The most logical explanations for why FAPs pop up outside of the situation they were designed for are 1.) better to have too many than too few triggers for these survival scripts in the doggy DNA – so in the case of humping, better to create a dog that gets turned on by too many things than too few and who might otherwise be slack at reproducing – and 2.) why not practice these key behaviors when opportunity arises, to keep them well honed for when they really are needed for their primary function?  

Arousal Triggers: Play, Excitement, and Conflict
Play seems to be a very common trigger for humping, probably because it is both a good opportunity for practicing important behaviors, as mentioned above, and also because it creates an exciting, stimulating atmosphere – a sexual trigger in many species, not just dogs!  This notion that general arousal can tip over into sexual arousal is supported by the fact that humping seems to be triggered by other stimulating experiences besides play.  For example, my pit bull Charlotte will often begin pelvic thrusting as she digs in to the wax feast of my beagle Bender’s ears.  Not my idea of excitement – but to each her own!  Humping can also occur in conflict situations that cause mild frustration or anxiety – settings where a dog wants to do something, but isn’t allowed to, and funnels the energy into another totally unrelated behaviour.   I knew a lab who would hump the cat only when told to stop begging at the dinner table.  We humans tend to do more “civilized” things when we are conflicted or a bit anxious, like tap our feet or twiddle with our hair… since humping is considered a very private behaviour in most societies!

Concerns About Humping As A Sign of Dominance
When dogs hump an object – usually the most expensive pillow in the house – humans generally find it either annoying or funny, but not deeply upsetting.  By contrast, humping people or other dogs often raises serious concerns about the possibility of a relationship problem if the humping is interpreted as a display of dominance. There is no question that humping is sometimes performed in the context of dominance displays, ranking maneuvers, posturing, or whatever term you want to use for the symbolic behaviors that dogs use to vie for controlling access to a given resource: owner, bone, dish, space, whatever.  When dogs hump each other, some owners are quite laissez-faire about the behaviour, and others more interfering.  However, when it comes to humping people, most humans find the behaviour annoying and embarrassing at best, and see it as a very scary tip of the iceberg indicating that the dog is en route to trying to take over the relationship, house, and even universe, at worst.

It may well be that some humping of people is motivated by attempts at control.  However, given that the primary function of humping is clearly sexual, and the frequency with which it pops up within play and other stimulating situations, jumping to the conclusion that a dog who humps a person or another dog is displaying dominance is faulty.

Training A Dog Not To Hump
Fortunately, it is often unnecessary to establish the reason for humping in order to curb it, since the very same technique works quite well across the board (minus trying to discourage a male from humping a female in heat!).

1)    Teach an “Off” or “Leave it” command
2)    Instruct Rover “Off” AS SOON AS Rover commits to the dirty deed
3)    If Rover proceeds despite the warning then advise him with “Too bad” that he’s just earned himself 5 minutes in the sin-bin (utility room, car, or other available time out zone) or a trip straight home from the dog park

The advantage of non-violent punishment to discourage unwanted behaviour, as compared to any hitting or other scare tactics, is that you will not risk creating a fear-aggression problem.  Being marched home from the dog park for a dog-dog humping offence, or being sent to the utility room for a dog-human humping offence are a bummer worth sulking over, not a trauma worthy of aggression. And for those concerned about dominance-related humping, being relegated to the penalty box sure sends a clear message about who is calling the shots! Violent punishers like hitting and shock collars can sometimes eliminate the problem they are used for but run the risk of leaving you with an even bigger problem instead.  For example, if you used a shock collar on a dog that humps young children, you could successfully eliminate the humping but at the same time cause a phobia of children by creating an association in your dog’s mind between young children and pain – a much bigger and more dangerous problem than humping was!

When To Intervene
It is my opinion that human intervention in the interest of the welfare of the humpee is appropriate in any situation where humping is non-consensual.  Consent is easily tested in dog-dog situations by removing the humper mid-action and seeing whether or not the humpee takes the opportunity to flee.  If he or she sticks around for more, you can assume it is consensual.  In the case of dog-human humping, I think it is reasonable to curb the behaviour if either the owner of the dog or the person being humped doesn’t like it, or if the humpee is a child.  It also seems appropriate to intervene if it is decided that the humping behaviour itself is problematic, regardless of who or what is on the receiving end.  In other words, if you find it embarrassing, frightening, or worrisome, or if your dog is gooping up your sofa pillow and giving himself a friction burn, then go ahead and curb it.  Other than an intact male pursuing a bitch in heat, we can teach our feisty friends to control their natural impulses, but we ought to do so using only non-violent methods.   

By Dr. Jennifer Messer