Why do dogs hump?

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Why do dogs hump?

Updated May 14, 2009

Dogs often hump to assert their dominance
Dogs often hump to assert their dominance.

One day, while giving a tour to some middle school students of the shelter, two dogs began humping.  The kids giggled and pointed, whispering under their breath to each other that the dogs were having sex. Certainly, that would seem to be the case, except the dogs were both females. Here was the perfect opportunity for me to discuss dominance behaviors in dogs, as soon as the kids quit giggling.

While humping is definitely a sexually-encoded behavior, dogs also hump to signal dominance and rank within their group. My female dog humps my male dog at some point during every day. While he is trying to get me to play fetch, she is on his haunches, humping. She wants him to know who is boss. He just wants me to throw the ball.

Just like the kids who were embarrassed at watching the two shelter dogs hump, we all have been in the unfortunate circumstance of being in the presence of an enthusiastic leg humper. Whether we own the dog or simply are the innocent leg upon which the dog pursues its activity, we all seem to be embarrassed by this behavior and wonder what we can do to make it stop.

So how do you curtail this behavior to avoid the rosy blush on your cheeks?

Unneutered male dogs are more likely to exhibit this behavior. The best answer is to sterilize your dogs when they are young, as this greatly improves the chances your dog will never hump.

Dogs neutered later in life may still maintain the habit for many months or years after the surgery, so be patient and distract them to head off the behavior the moment you see the warning signs.

But even dogs sterilized as early as 8-weeks-old (like my two dogs) can engage in humping behavior, which speaks to its role as a non-sexual communication mechanism between dogs in a pack — a pack being a minimum of at least two dogs.

When it comes to your dog humping people, add dog training to your to-do list. The more you train dogs to do anything — sit, stay, down — the more respectful they are of your position in the pack and the less likely they will feel the need to hump your leg or anyone else’s for that matter to establish dominance. Plus they learn to look to you for instruction rather than acting out on their own.

As for dog-to-dog humping, this can be a little trickier, since it is a valid form of communication between dogs. But generally, because visitors become uncomfortable over the behavior, I call my female dog towards me when she starts to hump my male dog. This action gets her to stop and reinforces my position as pack leader. Even though she always complies, I still have to ask her once or twice a day to cease and desist from humping my male dog.

Even though you may understand how humping works, you will no doubt still encounter people who will giggle and point when they see two dogs engaging in this behavior. Here’s your chance to educate people that the behavior is not always sexual. While the behavior appears to be deeply encoded in the canine genetic make-up, training and distraction can provide the pet owner of a humper with a few subtle ways to diminish the activity — at least in front of company.

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Cathy Rosenthal, CHES, CFE
Animal Welfare Communications Specialist

Cathy brings more than 25 years' experience in the animal welfare field. She is a sought-after speaker, Certified Humane Education Specialist, a syndicated pet advice columnist, an author, a publisher, and of course - a loving pet parent.

Read more about Cathy here or check out her Non-Profit's page to see more ways she can help you and your organization.

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