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!

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

  1. When I pat my Labrador Bonny for a while, on her tummy she licks her lips. Then she humps her bed for 20 minutes. Am I accidentally turning her on, or is she sensitive to my patting? Any thoughts or ideas would be helpful. ☺

  2. Our spayed 9 yr old female dog will stand on her hind legs when I come home and will hug me very tight with her front legs. She will also do this if I give attention to our cat. She has just started doing this since we adopted this cat, 2 yrs ago, but we have always had a cat. This cat as a kitten tormented our dog and our dog is still nervous to be too close to our cat. Is this action due to being nervous over our cat.
    Thank you

  3. After a year of having our boy, a 4 yr old lab mix, he starting humping me, starting after we had been away (boyfriend and me) for a weekend. He’s not done it to my boyfriend (his daddy) My boyfriend says it’s cause I’m a woman and the dog can smell the difference. I say it has nothing to do with that. Any thoughts?

  4. Thanks for this article, oh and I’m a wordpress user also! Im following you now :) i found this post via google search! Anyways so i have a 14 yr old corgi x jr , recently we had a new pooch arrive into our home. He is a 12 week old bull arab x staffy x mastif , he’s a rescue so a bit of a mixture.. At first pup wanted to play with my old boy 14 yr old cooper, but cooper being older doesnt have the energy to play like rocco our 12 week old pup… So cooper would be dominant toward him and tell him when he’s had enough and he would bark growl at him and mouth him sometimes but not in a violent way, in a dogs way of saying “stop I’ve had enough mate” … its been 3 weeks now and out of the blue he has started to hump our puppy flat out… Its so hard to stop him, cooper is 14 yr old he is desexed but for some reason out of the blue cant control his need to hump our puppy lol. Poor pup doesnt understand… Cooper will be trolling while he is doing it too , lol and ,his lipstick comes out , thats what i call his you know what… Its really strange how he just started doing it out of the blue… anyways thought id say thank you for this post :) its been helpful ! xx- loz chai … oh and come say hi!

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