My Funny Valentine...Please Get off This Leg of Mine!

The neighborhood kids wait for their big yellow school bus, right outside my front door every morning during the week. Supervision of young beagles in the front yard during this time is a must. I discovered this a few days after I moved in, when from the front window, I watched as my young neighbor, Ruthie reached into her lunchbox, pulled out a thick, round slice of minced ham and hurled it across the yard like a Frisbee, right into the waiting mouth of my very happy beagle. A few days later, I was outside with the dogs at school bus time when Ruthie came skipping down the sidewalk, her mother not far behind. Ruthie ran into the yard, gave Jessie Beagle a hug and a pet and quickly introduced Jessie to her mother. During that introduction, I heard her say, “Jessie really likes me. One day when the school bus came to pick us up, she grabbed my arm with both paws and wouldn’t let go – she wanted me to stay here with her.” I was mortified, and casually glanced toward her mother to check for a reaction. Seeing none, I decided she was either oblivious to dog behavior, or she was being incredibly polite.

Jessie was not quite a year old, and she pretty obviously had been humping a little girl! I thought this was little boy beagle behavior and wondered why I was seeing it in my pride and joy. At the time, I had not yet started to teach training classes, and knew very little about dog behavior, so I called several friends of mine who were more experienced trainers to see if they could explain this anomaly, and the most frequent answer I received, of course, was that she was demonstrating dominant behavior. Imagine that – my twenty pound beagle trying to take over my life and the lives of my neighbors by humping! Seems like a long, arduous way to go about building an empire…

I’d like to tell you that this was my only experience with a humping dog, but it was not. Years later, while washing dishes at the kitchen sink, I remember feeling the furry warmth of Alex Beagle when he crawled on top of my foot at the grand old age of four weeks. His tiny legs and paws could barely reach around, but sure enough, I looked down to find him humping. Dominance my ankle!

Listenmissy and Madison now share a home with me, and at the risk of ruining my reputation as a trainer, I will admit to you that Listenmissy is a humper. She is six years old, however, and she has never humped a human leg. She prefers pillows and blankets – and only when they are on the couch. Interestingly, I never saw this behavior until about a year ago, when Madison moved in.

So what causes it? I’m not sure I know – and actually, as a trainer, it’s not important for me to know what causes it to make it stop. But just for the heck of it, I’m going to throw out some ideas to compete with all of those comments about dominant behavior that I found on the internet when I Googled “canine leg humping.”

The behavior probably does have its roots in sexual behavior (now that took a scientific leap, didn’t it?) because, after all, it is what male dogs do when they have sex. So why would a female hump? I’m not sure I have an answer for that, but I have read that when females are born in litters that are predominantly male, the females may be exposed to more testosterone than females born in a mostly female litter. Perhaps these females take on what we consider to be male traits, either because they experience pre-natal flooding with testosterone, or because they are exposed to the behavior by their male littermates.
Or, could it be that some dogs, male or female, find themselves accidentally “assuming the position” and it triggers some primitive response or recognition?

Regardless of the reason it occurs, in the training world it’s most important that we concern ourselves with how to re-direct, counter-condition or teach an incompatible behavior in order to protect blankets, pillows, and unsuspecting ankles and legs. And, as for all those theories about dominance, I’ve been paying very close attention and it appears that, at least for now, we’re still in control.