Humping: Why Do Dogs Do It?

Dog experts weigh in on why dogs hump and how to get them to stop.

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed By Audrey Cook, BVM&S

At a local dog park in Atlanta, the other dog owners have a nickname for Lois Gross' dog, a Dutch shepherd. "They say 'Here comes Humping Taz,'" the Atlanta resident says of her 5-year-old, spayed female, Taz. "She doesn't want to play or run, she just wants to hump all the other dogs in the park. We kind of joke about it, but some people get really upset when she gets on their dog so I have to watch her constantly."

Although the image of a dog humping a person's leg, a pillow, or another dog can draw a laugh in a movie or on television, in real life it can be annoying, embarrassing, and even cause fights between dogs.

Why Do Dogs Hump?

Humping, or mounting, is a sexual position for dogs, but veterinarians who specialize in canine behavior say it often is done for other reasons as well.

David S. Spiegel, VMD, who has a behavioral veterinary practice near Swarthmore, Pa., says in unneutered and unspayed dogs under a year old, humping is usually sexual in nature. But in older dogs it can be a sign of dominance, a reaction to something that has excited the dog, like visitors arriving, or a sign that a dog hasn't been socialized correctly and doesn't know appropriate canine behavior.

"The topic draws giggles and laughs, but it's a very real topic for some people," Spiegel says. "Some dogs can become very compulsive about the behavior."

Gary Landsberg, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in Ontario, Canada, says mounting is common play behavior in puppies, and is even normal in the play of older dogs if it's not taken to extremes. "You'll often see one dog mount another, then a few minutes later they'll switch off and the other dog will mount the first dog," Landsberg says. "It's a common play gesture."

It's done by males and females, even by dogs that have been neutered or spayed, he says. "It's a play behavior that dogs do because no one has told them it's not acceptable," Landsberg said. "It can become enjoyable or a normal part of the dog's day, so it keeps doing it. It's the same as jumping up or barking at the door."

The Embarrassment of Humping

Debbie Sampson of Canton, Ga., says her Rottweiler, Moose, has a tendency to hump dogs at the dog park, although he doesn't do it at home with her other two dogs. Most dogs, she says, will get away from him, but when a dog submits to the behavior, it can get pretty embarrassing. "He can really get a little out of hand," Sampson says. "Sometimes we just want to yell at him 'Get a room.'"

Then there's little Lulu, 5, a spayed Chihuahua mix that Sampson adopted. Lulu came into the house addicted to humping. "I work at home and she humps my leg all day while I sit at my desk," Sampson says. "That's bad enough, but she'll do it when people are over, too. I try to pick her up and distract her, but that only works for a few minutes. The problem is you just don't know when she's going to do it."

Can Dogs Be Trained to Stop Humping?

Veterinarians say it's easiest to stop the behavior when it first starts. Spiegel says people often think humping is cute in puppies, so they don't stop it, or even encourage it by laughing or giving the dog attention.

"If you see a behavior you don't want to see all the dog's life, then you need to stop it when you first see it," Spiegel says. "So if the puppy is humping, distract them when they do it and then give them something else to do. That's very important. You have to give them an alternative behavior. Give them a different toy. Play with them in an appropriate way."

Neutering a male dog usually will decrease mounting problems, the veterinarians say. But in older dogs, where it has become an ingrained habit, other measures will probably be needed. Spiegel recommends obedience training, which can make dogs calmer in situations like when visitors are at the door, or a trip to the dog park.

"Humping can be related to heightened excitement levels, so training can take the excitement level down," Spiegel says.

Landsberg says mounting also is a common dominance gesture with dogs, although it doesn't mean the dog that is doing the humping is dominant. In fact, dogs that are unsure of their place in the pack are more likely to hump to see how many dogs will accept the behavior, a move that can lead to fights with other dogs.

When trying to figure out how to stop the behavior, Landsberg says owners must first figure out what is causing the behavior by watching to see when it usually happens. Then give the dog an acceptable alternative behavior in those situations.

When Your Dog Just Won't Stop Humping

There are some cases where dogs just don't want to stop. Deva Joy Gouss of Atlanta saved a group of dogs from a shelter 11 years ago, including Samme, a terrier mix. Samme has always humped, Gouss says, a behavior that prevented her from being adopted.

"I had a lady come to see about adopting her and Samme climbed up in the chair and started humping her head," Gouss said.

Gouss, a social worker who often holds therapy sessions at her house, says Samme has interrupted sessions with her behavior, including climbing into the lap of one patient and humping. "I tell her to stop and she will, but just for a few minutes," Gouss says.

Concerned at first, Gouss took Samme to several veterinarians to find out if she had an infection or irritation that was causing her to hump so much. But the vets found nothing wrong.

So over the years Gouss has just learned to live with the behavior. And Samme has calmed down some as she's aged, although Gouss attributes some of that to the arthritis Samme has in her lower back.

Breaking the Humping Cycle

Some types of humping are easier to deal with than others, the experts say. When a dog is humping a person, the person should just get up and walk away, which teaches the dog that this is an unacceptable behavior. When they mount other dogs, owners should separate them, and keep the dogs apart when they can't be supervised.

But when dogs hump objects, such as pillows or toys, it can be a very difficult habit to break, Spiegel says. In those cases, he recommends keeping the dogs on a strict schedule, which lessens anxiety, and giving them lots of exercise, so they are too tired to get into trouble.

There also are medications that can help dogs with obsessive/compulsive tendencies, he says.

And if all else fails, let the dog have its favorite pillow or toy once or twice a day, in private, he says. "Some dogs are just more sexually driven," Spiegel says. "But in our culture it's not acceptable to let your dog hump other dogs or people. It's rude."

SOURCES: Lois Gross, owner of dogs, Taz, Ma,x and Sadie, Atlanta.

David S. Spiegel, VMD, owner of a behavioral veterinary practice, Swarthmore, Pa.

Gary Landsberg, DVM; diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, veterinary behaviorist in Ontario, Canada.

Debbie Sampson, owner of dogs, Moose, Lulu and Max, Canton, Ga.

Deva Joy Gouss, owner of Samme, Atlanta.

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