Is Humping a Sign of Dominance or a Symptom of Frustration?
(Originally published in different form at PsychologyToday.com on July 22, 2011.)
The simplest way to stop a dog from humping is to redirect the energy behind this undesirable behavior into biting a toy or bone or other acceptable object. If that tidbit of information isn't enough to satisfy your curiosity, read on. I'll explain things in more detail!
In a 2011 article at PsychologyToday.com Dr. Stanley Coren explains why dogs hump. He says the behavior has nothing to do with sex; it's all about showing dominance.
Since dogs don't just mount humans and other dogs, but will also hump their toys, pillows, and blankets, it seems unlikely that this behavior is about social dominance which, if it exists, can only take place between animals of the same species who are also members of the same social group.
So what is this behavior really about?
I think it's about a blocked feeling of social attraction. The dog feels an attraction to a person, animal, or object, but for some reason is unable to express it in a normal way, i.e., through mouthing, biting, or playing. When the frustration reaches a certain level, the humping begins. (Though it sometimes begins without any visible frustration on the dog's part.)
I've seen numerous dogs who seemed desperate to get a non-compliant partner to play with them, who've tried humping that dog, gave up, tried again and again and again, then finally rolled over on their backs in a "submissive" posture. The only constant was not the first dog's alpha status or his dominant personality, otherwise why would he have started acting "submissive?" It was simply that the dog had a strong desire to play and the energy—the emotional push—behind that desire had nowhere to go.
Dr. Coren rightly says that the tendency to hump another dog is seen in a litter of puppies, though he reports this fact to reinforce the idea that humping is not a sexual behavior, because a puppy's sexual development is several months away. But the full development of a puppy's hunting skills—the chase, the eye-stalk, the grab-bite, the kill-bite (shaking the head around while holding a prey object in the mouth)—is more than a few months away as well, yet these behaviors are clearly seen in puppy play.
But let's say, for a moment, that dominance, as a behavioral tendency, does exist. Since it's defined as having control over resources, in what way does humping get the supposed dominant pup a better feeding or sleeping spot, or better access to anything good? If dominance exists, it would be in relation to pushing another puppy out of the way of mother's milk, etc., not mounting him or her from behind.
Dr. Coren also notes that humping is about showing leadership toward one's littermates. But in what way, and in what possible context, does humping show leadership?
A simpler explanation for this behavior is that it's caused by a frustration of the dog's desire to connect to an object of attraction.
Sigmund Freud hypothesized that "Even though it is certain that sexuality and the distinction between the sexes did not exist before life began, the possibility remains that the instincts which were later described as sexual may have been in operation from the very first." ("Beyond the Pleasure Principle," The Freud Reader, p. 615).
If Freud is right, this means that an earlier, non-sexual drive existed to influence organisms to form connections of one type or another long before the advent of sexual reproduction. If this is true then Dr. Coren may be off-base when he says that humping is not a sexual behavior. It could very well be a displacement of this nascent form of sexual energy.
Domination or Sublimation?
Of course humping can't just be about feeling frustrated because another dog won't play. That might explain what happens at the dog park, but not why a dog humps the mailman's leg, or his own toys or blankie, or why he tries to hump visitors.
Like most aspects of canine behavior, I think this behavior comes from the way canines have had to sublimate their urge to bite, a behavioral tendency dogs have inherited from wolves.
What do I mean by that?
It's unusual for predators to form social groups because without something to damper their natural aggression they might begin attacking one another. This is the primary reason most predator species don't live together in close-knit social groups. But in order for wolves to successfully hunt large prey, they need to form packs. And in order for the pack to maintain its stability, wolves have to exert some form of impulse control over their urge to bite one another.
Once humans started domesticating the wolf-like animals that eventually became dogs, those who exerted the most impulse control over their urge to bite were likely the most successful at living long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation. And this tendency slowly became encoded into a dog's DNA.
And I believe that this ability to sublimate the urge to bite—partially genetic, partially conditioned in the litter (by the puppy who yelps when his littermate bites down on his ears or tail too hard)—is one of the primary mechanisms behind all canine social behavior. It's never about domination, it's always about sublimation.
Frustration of Oral Urges
As Freud pointed out, there's a broader and more primeval way of looking at this drive to connect, which can also be seen, for instance, in the formation of atomic bonds, molecular structures, the behaviors of jellyfish, how plant sends its roots down to the soil seeking nutrients, its leaves up to catch the sun's rays. Without a mechanism for each aspect of nature—atoms, molecules, jellyfish, wolf packs—to be able to make connections to other parts of the natural world, there would be no natural world. Everything has to connect to something else in order for all things in Nature, organic and inorganic, to exist.
Wolves are designed to connect to their prey through their teeth and jaws. In a like manner, puppies show an urge to connect orally to almost everything they encounter. This is an incredibly strong urge that takes place during a very specific window of time. And when that urge is stifled or repressed by the puppy's owners, it can wreak havoc on the pup's ability to form normal social relationships with people and with other dogs.
The urge to bite is a strong one, and it has to be given some kind of outlet or else neurotic behaviors of one kind or another will surface. This is as predictable as the fact that water runs downstream.
In his article, Dr. Coren says that humping should not be permitted. It should be stopped to maintain the pack hierarchy, by which he means the dog/human pack.
It's true that humping should not be allowed or tolerated. But if an over-exaggerated urge to hump comes not from the urge to dominate others, but from unresolved issues that took place during a puppy's oral development, then what is the best way to prevent a dog from engaging in this disagreeable behavior?
To dominate him? I don't think so. Just give the dog a safe means of satisfying his urge to bite. This may sound strange to some, but it's absolutely true. And it can be verified quite easily.
Satisfying the Urge to Bite
Years ago I got a call from a family who'd just adopted a 7 month old rescue puppy named Tippy, a black Lab mix with a white tip on his tail. They needed help because Tippy had an over-exaggerated urge to connect to his owners, by joyfully biting the leash—which sometimes spilled over to biting their arms—while out on walks in their neighborhood or to the park.
When I arrived Tippy greeted me at the door, in a fairly normal way—making friendly eye contact and jumping up to say hello. We went into the kitchen and sat down at the table to discuss what was going on, and Tippy began panting and pacing the floor, occasionally coming over to hump my leg for brief spurts. I ignored him, using the theory that a behavior that isn't being reinforced will eventually extinguish itself. However, this theory had no effect on Tippy.
I talked with the family for about thirty minutes and yet the dog still hadn't stopped pacing the floor, panting, and coming over occasionally to hump my leg.
I finally realized that he needed my help to calm down. So the next time he came over, but before he could start mounting my leg, I scratched his cheek with one hand, and put two fingers of the other into his mouth, encouraging him to nibble on them. He bit down very gently and I softly praised him for doing so, petting him the whole time. After about thirty seconds he got tired of chewing on my hand and went under the table to lie down and very quickly fell asleep. For the first time since I'd arrived, he was completely calm, and all because I used my fingers as puppy pacifiers. (Don't try doing this yourself unless you're absolutely certain that the dog won't actually bite your fingers.)
As I walked home I thought about Tippy's reasons for humping me. His affect seemed more frustrated than dominant. But why, I wondered, was he frustrated?
It struck me that Tippy, like all dogs, had a strong desire to make social contact—a strong desire to connect—but had to do so in a way that would also satisfy his urge to bite, i.e., by bringing me a toy. But the normal social development of this pup had, in all likelihood, been repressed by his previous owners during his oral development.
I believe that's why, after I let Tippy chew on my fingers for about 30 seconds, he finally stopped humping my leg, calmed down, and went to sleep. The act of mouthing my fingers satisfied his need to connect orally. Once that need had been satisfied, the humping behavior disappeared, at least for the time being.
I see only one possible explanation for this. I said earlier that my hypothesis about the underlying cause of a dog's humping behavior is easily verifiable: if a dog has a humping problem and you give him an outlet for his urge to bite—ideally through biting toys in play—the need to hump should go away, as if on its own.
What may be most interesting about Tippy's story is that I successfully controlled the dog's behavior (that is, I "dominated" him) by simply allowing him to chew on my fingers for about 30 seconds. And he never tried to hump me again.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
1) One might be tempted to think of a litter of puppies as being essentially like a pack, except for the fact that, as Ray Coppinger says, pack formation in canids is a function of prey size. Dogs don't hunt large prey; they get their food in a bowl. So they don't form packs. Even feralized domestic dogs don't hunt large prey, so even they don't form packs. Puppies obviously don't hunt large prey, and they certainly do not form packs. And without a pack there can be no pack hierarchy.
2) Technically, there's no such thing as the "dog/human" pack, just as there's no possibility of social dominance between humans and dogs. As I said earlier (though it bears repeating), dominance, if it exists, can only take place between members of the same social group who are also members of the same species.