Why Dogs Hump (Spoiler Alert: it’s not all about dominance)

Last summer, I house-sat for my parents while they went on vacation. Neither of their pets, a 14-year-old cat and an 11-year-old dog, do well being boarded, and it was much less stressful for me to stay with them than it would have been to send them somewhere.

I brought my dogs with me, so it was a very full household. Their elderly Lab cross, Duke, already knew Layla quite well. However, he wasn’t as familiar with my youngest pup, Mischief. This posed a bit of a problem.

Duke

Duke

You see, like many dogs, Duke tends to default to humping when he’s stressed or unsure. Any time my dogs would start to play, Duke’s lips would stretch back towards his ears, his brow would furrow, and he would grab Mischief with his front paws, attempting to mount her. With the forty-pound size difference between the two dogs, this did not make Mischief happy. Being a fairly socially savvy dog, she would spin around to face him when he did this, the doggy version of “knock that off,” and if that didn’t work she would escalate to snapping at him, saying, “no really, I mean it.”

Of course, knowing that Duke was likely to hump Mischief when he became anxious or excited, my boyfriend and I were able to prevent this behavior most of the time. When Duke started to circle towards Mischief, we would say his name, redirecting him to move towards us for praise and petting. When we had visitors over and Duke hit his limit of the amount of excitement he could stand before he could no longer make good choices, I put him on leash. If we couldn’t supervise the dogs, one or the other of them was crated.

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 tangible. So, why do dogs hump? Here are the most common motivations behind humping in dogs:

Arousal: Once a dog hits a certain level of excitement, that energy has to go somewhere. Some dogs express their joy by doing “zoomies,” where they tuck their butt and sprint as fast as they can in circles. Some bark. Some hump.

Anxiety: Like Duke, most humpers whose owners seek my help are quite anxious. Anxiety leads to arousal, and as we saw above that leads to humping. Technically, canine behavior experts call this a “displacement” behavior. When the dog becomes anxious, he or she 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 at our watch when we’re in socially uncomfortable situations.

Play: Play is interesting. When dogs or other mammals play, they mix up a bunch of behaviors in new sequences. These behaviors have very useful roots: chasing, stalking, and pouncing are useful hunting behaviors; mouthing and wrestling are useful fighting behaviors; and humping is a useful sexual behavior. Some biologists believe that play is practice for the real world. By mixing all of these useful behaviors up with some other signals that mean “just kidding, I’m still playing and not really planning to eat you for dinner,” dogs get a chance
to practice moving their bodies in ways that could increase their chances of surviving a situation where the behaviors were needed for real.

Status: While this is a common attribution for humping, dogs almost never use humping as a form of status seeking or as a display of status. In fact, in over ten years of training, I’ve only met one dog who appeared to use humping as a means of status seeking. (And even in that case, the dog was also pretty insecure, so the humping was more likely caused by her anxiety than by her desire to climb the social ladder.)

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 Fido or Fifi have a little “me time” on occasion behind closed doors as long as it’s not causing problems. Before Dobby’s seizure disorder took over his life, he and Mischief would often hump each other when they were playing. As long as both dogs seemed okay with it I wouldn’t interrupt them (although I would ask them to take it outside). That doesn’t mean it’s always okay, though: I draw the line at humping people, and if my dogs do this I redirect them and teach them more appropriate ways to interact with humans.

So there you have it. Humping is a normal doggy behavior, albeit a somewhat embarrassing one for those of us on the other end of the leash. As for Duke, he’s long since stopped his anxious and inappropriate response to Mischief. Now that he’s gotten to know her better, he can play appropriately with her without resorting to humping. In fact, he just spent the past five days with her, and didn’t need to be redirected a single time… a relief for everyone involved.

Does your dog ever hump? Why do you think this happens? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

27 responses to “Why Dogs Hump (Spoiler Alert: it’s not all about dominance)

  1. Hmm, very enlightening. Our boy Edi humped a handful of times prior to his neuter when we first got him, but hasn’t at all after. I’d probably put that into the arousal bucket (teenage – 10 months – bulldog with testosterone and energy). Our girl has humped in the play rink a handful of times. She’s a fairly anxious dog, but it usually seems to happen when she’s most comfortable with the other dogs..maybe status? She is a diva…

  2. My Lil Oreo doesn’t hump. He will slowly position himself where he rests his stuff on my crossed leg foot. It cracks me up. 😅

  3. Reblogged this on The Balanced Pack and commented:
    Humping is a common thing around here and it is usually for play! Some dogs have different play styles, some like bump and chase, some like wrestling, some like sprinting like goofs, some like to hump; most of the insecure dogs use it as a means to instigate play, unsure of bowing techniques, etc. Humping you or objects on the other hand is a different story! ;) most likely a result of one of the other listed reasons, including, dominance ;)

  4. My foxhound (yes, foxhound), Buster humps our grandchildren given half the chance. His sharp claws can hurt them – we usually manage to stop it occurring but it happens when they play with him and I think he just gets over-excited. I did think it was a dominance thing but maybe it isn’t.

  5. Oh boy, do I have one for you. My foster dog, a 3ish year old male Boxer, who I’ve had in my home for nearly a year, will hump ME. I definitely know that it is more prevalent during my “time of the month”, but he will sometimes do it other days as well. What I find interesting is that, another dog from the same exact house we got him from, a female around the same age, also humps me periodically. She was a foster for about 6 months and she is now in a new home, where it is reported that she has NEVER tried to hump any of the people or the resident dog.

    Normally, I would think this is an individual behavior, but having 2 dogs as fosters that came from the same original home, most likely have at least one common parent, I think is uncommon. Let me also say that it has never been reported that either dog has humped any other human. But me.

  6. i used to have an old english sheepdog that was an incorrigible humper, usually of other large male dogs. he was one obstinate creature. he would also steal other dogs’ toys, refusing to give them up even for such delicacies as hot dog or cheese. when this behaviour elicited our departure from the park, he would drop the stolen object as if it were nothing. i’m pretty sure his whole M.O. was dominance related.

  7. My service dog has just recently started humping his bed. I know a lot about training from being taught by the service dog organization I got him through, and he is a successor dog. My first service dog was a female, and we spoke at many positive reinforcement and operant conditioning-based seminars across the US. We did several for the ABMA (Animal Behavior Management Association — which is trainers of all sorts from all over the world, mostly non-domestic trainers like Sea World and Zoos. The training they do is more so for safety and well-being of both the animals and trainers, and also a lot for health, husbandry, and grooming of the animals. Like training an elephant to place it’s foot on a stool so that they can clean it’s feet. Things to make it less stressful for the animal when for example they need to draw blood. It’s really interesting) Anyway, the other places we spoke was for Karen Pryor’s Clicker Expo one year. With my new service dog, I have had him 2 years now, and this behavior has just started. It seemed as if one day he accidentally rubbed his genitals on his bed, he realized he liked it, and could do it. I didn’t correct this behavior at first, because I felt like if it made him happy to do that now and again, then so be it. Let the poor boy get his jollies. But, once he learned it, he would do it NUMEROUS times a day, back to back at times. It became excessive. I realized I needed to correct this because I had company over, and in about a 30-minute window, he had humped his bed 5x! So I started with calling his name. He would normally stop. Then I tried rewarding him. I soon realized that he wasn’t a dummy by far, and then this could backfire on me and send him the wrong message. The message that “oh if I do this, she will call my name then give me a treat.” So you have to be very careful of this. What I have done now is that I always mix up the distraction. Sometimes call his name, sometimes a “ehh! ehh!”… sometimes a “hey now!”… etc. and I don’t reward him every time for stopping, and if I do reward him, I make sure I time it correctly and will have him do some “sits’ or “downs” first… THEN reward him for those to avoid him thinking he is getting rewarded FOR doing it, or being smarter than master and putting 2 and 2 together realizing if he does it, I will call him and give him a treat. I have recalled him enough that it has gone down a lot. He still whenever my back is turned will try, but I can hear him and his bed sliding, so will distract even when my back is turned. LOL! Sometimes I allow him to do it and don’t recall him. But this behavior went from 0-60 just one day out of the blue. I have noticed he will do it when he gets excited. Like after he is given his favorite dog bone for the day, or things like that. I really enjoyed your blog and am now following it. My blog is having some link issues right now, but if you would like to read more about me, please read my blog at: http://www.freewheelinblog.com (Free Wheelin’ – Life Beyond A Wheelchair) I plan on adding this to my favorite blog sidebar links.

  8. Both my males hump. One humps the other and the other :air humps”. Thanks for explaining all the reasons they do this.

  9. My 3 year old wheaten just started this behavior in the morning…he gets super excited when I get up to hit the alarm and will jump on the bed and give kisses…if i let this go on for more then a few seconds he will start “air humping”. Wish i knew why he was doing this and what recently caused him to start. I have been trying to change my routine and just get up from bed and take him straight outside.

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  11. mmmm, I have a comment regarding “I have yet to see a dog use humping to gain access to food, toys, space, or anything else tangible.” I have two BTs, and I have witnessed the following behavior repeatedly: 1) Boy dog who really could care less about toys decides he wants to actually play with one. 2) Girl dog, who loves toys, of course wants THAT exact toy at THAT exact moment. 3) Boy dog, who is 7 lbs bigger, will not give the toy up. 4) Girl dog starts humping boy dog. 5) Boy dog gets indignant, turns head around to snap at girl dog. 6) Girl dog uses the opportunity to grab toy and run off. 7) Boy dog goes back to caring less about toys. It’s brilliant. And clearly she wants to gain access to that toy. Just a comment. Arf.

  12. My older male will hump my younger male if I am trying to do something and the younger one wants attention, or if he won’t hold still when I need to brush him. In the latter case it holds the younger one in place where I want him. Not really a desirable behavior though.

  13. my Labrador likes to hump his bed, especially after his dinner! Rawhide bones especially make him horny. I’ve had to remove his foam bed before he destroyed it completely. I tried redirecting him but treating him for leaving it only makes his tummy fuller and then more likely to do it again later!

    • Have you found a solution? I can’t allow it cause my doggy also destroys whilst humping, and drags the bed to other room leaving spilt water bowls and other things in his wake. Have only been able to give him his bed once he’s in a full slumber for the night. Sometimes that’s not until midnight! Then he won’t jump it but any other time it’s 100% assured and I then have to wrestle the bed off him. Treats haven’t worked so far for this but I will of course keep trying.

  14. My 8 yo male standard poodle, neutered at 10 mos., humps, mostly small males and mostly seems to be very excited and asking to play. If I catch it quickly enough (it’s usually only at the dog park) he responds to a “leave it” command. If I don’t catch it fast enough his eyes will glaze over with a crazy stupid stare and I have to take him by the collar and remove him. At that point we move to a completely separate part of the park, go for a walk, because once he gets that interested in a dog he wants to keep going back.

    It’s definitely not dominance or even status, he’s pretty good at expressing that. It doesn’t seem like it could be insecurity, either, since it would be the only time he acts insecure.

    He spent his first 10 months in a breeding barn, intact. I always wonder if he learned this there, or adapted it as a means of play. The breeder was moving into hybrids at the time and I also wonder if he was bred. Would that affect this behavior?

  15. I have a – now – 15 month old hound who started to “hump” during Dec. She had had her first season beginning of September. As she did air-humping as well as humping my 6 year old dog, I decided it was a hormonal thing. She did this for 2-3 weeks and I notice that she now does not, thus convincing me that I was right. So there is yet another reason why some dogs (bitches) hump…….

  16. valarie rightout

    My 11yr old fixed Lab…has to hump his pillow(a large dog bed)???Only after dinner does he do this!!!

  17. mine too!! But he is only 5.5 years old…

  18. My un neutered 6yo male lab recently started humping my 8 month old male lab right after we got the pup fixed. He also seems very unsettled and restless, pacing allot. Being stressed seems to be accurate but why did it start right after my pup got fixed?

  19. My male 11 year old yorkie poo who has NEVER humped has started humping my 9 month old female yellow lab. She was spayed about 3 weeks ago. The lab thinks its fun because she would try to play with him and he was never interested. However its happening all the time and the male is getting a little aggressive. It seems so weird that this behavior all the sudden developed. The male does have some other health issues ( diabetes and seizures on occasion) but is pretty spry other wise. Should I be concerned?

  20. My American bulldog Johnson bitch keeps humping my dad’s male staffy and licking his male part ???

  21. My dog (2 year old mini poodle) has never tried humping another dog, but he does get excited and tries my leg. I then give him his “girlfriend”, which is a big stuffed dog, and he has a go at her and then calms down. A couple of times he has “gone the whole way”, but he seemed uncomfortable afterward and I have sometimes intercepted him and just distracted him until his choochoo goes away. I know it sounds strange, but I figure he is just a normal boy, so that’s how I deal with it.
    He is intact, he only humps occasionally, and so far it is not a problem.

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  23. I am REALLY embarrassed to ask this but even more so I am REALLY interested to know what your take on this behavior is. Whenever my dog, a two and a half year old intact male pug, is sleeping near me and I move he wakes up from a sound sleep,with a groggy look, and immediately starts humping- me, the air, or whatever he can get to closest! The tiniest movement will set him off- like scratching my leg, or more extensive moving of my body into a different position. Sometimes if I move in the “right” direction he will attempt to first stick his nose in my private area!! It is the most horribly embarrassing thing ever to have my dog sniff me and then instantly hump me! Maybe I am being naive in not seeing that the behavior is a direct result of his not being fixed yet BUT i was wondering if it could also possibly be something else. He is a bit of a nervous nelly with a MAJOR licking, biting, and chewing habit when he because anxious/nervous and he has been known to lick so much his skin gets red! I spoke to my vet about the licking and was prescribed a cream (and also changed some of our habits with him) which helped. He only does it intermittently now, Especially after high stress activities.
    Anyway, I was just wondering what you thought could be the reason behind this type of behavior. He is a very well behaved boy otherwise, He is great with my daughter who has autism. He is just an all around great little guy, but this behavior does bother me a lot.
    He isn’t due for another vet appointment for six months and we cannot get him fixed atleast until my daughter starts school again. (Her autism means she doesn’t always listen to us and we are afraid she will rip his cone off OR annoy a sick, hurt, and groggy henry!)

    Thanks for your help!!

  24. I have a 9 year old jack Russell cross corgi he humps his blanket and pants loudly he’s been neutered since he was 8 months old so I don’t know why he does it

  25. Very interesting and informative, but still want to know the answer to my question. If my dogs have never ‘humped’ and now have had their ‘operation” does that mean they never will?

    • Sarah Hodkinson

      No one can say that a dog will never hump mine is 9 years old and still humps I have a 10 month old pup who has just been castrated and has never done it but hey it cohld start after he’s had his stitches out

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