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Debarking Pet Myths: Dog “Humping” Is All About S-E-X or Dominance

Welcome to another episode of “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.

This month’s topic — just in case the title wasn’t obvious enough — is about a canine behavior that many dog owners find embarrassing, annoying, unacceptable and even abnormal. Yes, we’re going to talk dog mounting (the preferred term), or “humping,” and why dogs do it when they do. And just for the record: no, your dog isn’t deliberately trying to embarrass or dominate you.

(We promise to address this subject as mature adults. But if kids who haven’t learned yet about the birds and the bees are peering over your shoulder, you might want to wait for another time to read this article.)

Dog behaviors are riddled with nuance

From barking to tail wagging, dogs engage in behaviors that have subtle shades of meaning. When you live with a dog long enough, you recognize the differences in the barks that convey “Hey! I need to go out for a bathroom break” versus “I’m really happy to see you!” You also know the difference between tail wags, including those that mean “I’m a bit nervous” and “This is the best day ever!”

Like tail wagging and barking, dog humping behavior is far more complicated and nuanced than it may first seem. No, it isn’t all about sex. In fact, there’s no one explanation for the behavior, particularly without the surrounding context.

Assumptions about canine mounting behavior debunked

Some dog owners, like their non-pet-owning counterparts, assume canine mounting behavior is all about reproduction. It’s true that mounting is a sexual position for dogs. But it’s not necessarily true that humping is all about mating. In fact, according to veterinary behaviorists and dog behavior consultants, mounting behavior is most commonly not about sex. Sure, if you have an intact (unneutered) male mounting an intact (unspayed) female who’s “in heat,” then yes, the activity is clearly about reproduction. So why do spayed or neutered dogs exhibit mounting behavior?

Another common assumption is that a dog mounts another dog or a person in an effort to dominate them. That isn’t always the case either. In a study of dog-dog interactions in a dog daycare setting, mounting was associated with play and other affiliative (friendly) behaviors, not status-related behaviors such as aggression and submission.

What behaviorists now know is that humping is part instinct and part learned behavior, and isn’t completely regulated by hormones. More importantly, dog owners need to understand that mounting is a normal dog behavior and part of normal canine communication. Both males and females do it, as do intact, neutered and spayed dogs. Mounting becomes a problem behavior, though, when a dog humps people or excessively mounts other dogs, upsetting them or causing fights.

So why do dogs mount?

Like many other dog behaviors, there are different reasons why dogs mount other dogs, people, stuffed animals, pillows, furniture or even air. (Yes, “air humping” is a thing for some dogs.) The key to understanding why a specific dog exhibits the behavior is knowing the context in which it occurs.

Here are five basic motivations for dog humping behavior.

5 Basic Reasons for Mounting Behavior | Diamond Pet Foods

The most likely reason dogs hump things (objects) or people, according to veterinary behaviorists, is to release stress, anxiety and/or excitement. Some dogs bark, others jump or run, and some hump. The stress and excitement of meeting other dogs is a classic cause of mounting behavior, which is why you’re likely to see it happening at dog parks.

Mounting is frequently a displacement behavior, a behavior that occurs out of context in response to an internal emotional conflict, according to veterinary behaviorists. Some dogs aren’t well-equipped to deal with stressful or exciting situations. Maybe your dog becomes overly excited when playing with a new toy or feels stressed about how to interact with a particular visitor to your home. Humping can be an outlet that relieves the dog’s nonsexual arousal and stress.

Attention-seeking can be another reason why dogs hump. For some attention-starved dogs, negative attention is better than none at all. However, mounting behavior can also be an anxiety response to punishment.

Play involves more than “fun” in a dog’s world. It’s an important social lubricant, an activity that helps dogs feel more comfortable in social settings (e.g., dog parks). Like play fighting, play humping can be a normal, acceptable behavior between two dogs — as long as it doesn’t upset one of them. Mounting during play is considered an affiliative behavior, one that reinforces bonds between dogs in a group, and suggests a healthy relationship between dogs.

Whether or not a dog uses mounting to communicate dominance depends on the context in which the behavior occurs. Some veterinary behaviorists believe humping is a common dominance gesture in older dogs. But the dog doing the mounting may not be the dominant one. More likely, dogs who are unsure of their place in the pack are the ones doing the mounting, a move that can lead to fighting.

Humping objects like pillows, bunched-up blankets or stuffed animals, on the other hand, isn’t a dominance gesture because dominance involves a relationship between two individuals.

If mounting is a new behavior that starts suddenly and occurs frequently, an underlying medical or physical cause may be the trigger. Talk with your veterinarian because infections of the urinary tract, anal sacs, uterus or vagina, allergies that produce intense itching in sensitive areas, or hormonal disorders that result in increased testosterone, estrogen or progesterone levels may be causing your dog to seek relief through mounting behavior.

Problem behavior? Here are simple steps to take

Mounting behavior is a normal behavior in dogs; but it can also be a problem behavior if it occurs excessively. While a full discussion on how to deal with mounting as behavioral problem is beyond the scope of this article, there are steps you can take immediately if a dog’s mounting behavior is causing issues within your home pack.

First, have your veterinarian physically examine your dog to determine if there’s an underlying health issue causing your pup’s behavior. If there is a medical reason for the behavior, your veterinarian can then help you figure out why your dog is behaving this way. Your veterinarian can also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or dog behavioral consultant and/or trainer.

Second, observe your dog to identify the motivation behind the behavior. Is your dog anxious during certain situations? Does he or she become overly stimulated during playtime? Is your dog seeking attention from you, another family member or visitors? Is your dog mounting other dogs, people, objects or all of the above? Different motivations need different treatments, so you’ll want to look for patterns in your dog’s behavior.

Third, teach or use commands to distract your dog during inappropriate episodes of mounting. You can also practice avoidance, when possible. If you — and everyone else present — leave the immediate environment when your dog starts mounting, you help prevent any encouragement or positive reinforcement of the behavior. Finally, don’t punish your dog because that can lead to other problem behaviors.

False: Dog “Humping” Is Not All About S-E-X or Dominance | Diamond Pet Foods

RELATED POST: 7 Commands Every Dog Should Know

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.

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