"How to Stop Your Dog From Humping."

Updated: Jan 18

Is Humping a Sign of Dominance or a Symptom of Frustration?

Originally published in slightly different form on July 22, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.


Dominance or Sexual Release?

In his most recent article here, Dr. Stanley Coren, a highly esteemed scientist and well-known expert on dogs, gives us his view of 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—even a family cat or rabbit—it seems very unlikely that this behavior is about social dominance in the pack’s hierarchy.

So what is this behavior really about?

I think it’s about a blocked feeling of attraction. The dog feels an attraction to a person, animal, or object, but for some reason is unable to express that feeling in a normal way, i.e.., through mouthing, biting, or playing. When the frustration reaches a certain level, the humping begins.


Mounting another dog from behind is a behavior often seen when dogs play with one another (see Bekoff and Byers 1981 and Fagen 1981). This happens most often when one dog is frustrated that he can’t get another dog to play with him. In such cases, the first dog may start humping his potential play partner to instigate a round of “chase me.”


For anyone with the propensity to see dominance where none exists, this could be interpreted as an intention to dominate the other dog by forcing it to play. Yet 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, then 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 these dogs have started acting submissive?); it was simply that the dogs had a strong desire to play with the other dog, and the energy behind that desire had nowhere to go.

Puppy Play vs Dominance and Humping

Dr. Coren rightly says that the tendency to hump another dog is seen in a litter of puppies, [1] 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 development of the pup’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 also several months away. Yet they’re clearly seen in puppy play too.


Let’s say, for a moment, that dominance, as a behavioral tendency, does exist in puppies. One of the theoretical hallmarks of having higher status is maintaining control of resources. In what way does humping get the supposed dominant pup a better feeding or sleeping spot, or better access to the water bowl? If dominance does exist, 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 simple explanation is that the behavior is caused by a frustration of the dogs desire to connect (or cathect) to an object of attraction.


Of course it can’t just be about feeling frustrated because another dog won’t play. That might explain what happens in 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 when they come through the door.

Domination or Sublimation?

Like most aspects of canine behavior, I think this behavior comes from the way canines have had to sublimate their urge to bite, going back to the formation of the first wolf pack, millions of years ago.


It’s unusual for predators to form social groups because without some damper on their natural aggression odds are they might begin attacking one another. This is the primary reason most predator species don’t live together in close-knit groups. But in order for wolves to successfully hunt large prey, they need to form packs. In order for the pack to be stable, wolves have to exert impulse control over their urge to bite one another.


Once humans started domesticating dogs, those animals who exerted the most impulse control over their urge to bite were 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—is the primary mechanism behind all canine social behavior.


It’s not about domination, it’s about sublimation.

Atoms, Molecules, Jellyfish and Wolf Packs and the Urge to Bite

There’s a broader way of looking at this. Sodium and chlorine atoms have an interesting structure that enables them to connect to one another, creating sodium chloride (salt) molecules: NaCl. The same goes for hydrogen and oxygen: H2O. A plant sends its roots down to the soil seeking nutrients, its leaves up to catch the sun’s rays. Jellyfish—who have no nervous system—are still somehow able to seek out and kill their prey. 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 for it all to work. [2]

Wolves are designed to connect to their prey through their teeth and jaws. Puppies show an urge to connect to almost everything they encounter through their teeth and jaws. 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 pup’s owners, it can wreak havoc on his ability to form normal social relationships with people and with other dogs.


The urge to bite is still 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.


It’s true that humping should not be allowed, encouraged, or tolerated, at least not for very long. But if the urge to hump comes not from the urge to dominate, but from unresolved issues that took place during a puppy’s oral development phase, then what is the best way to prevent a dog from engaging in this disagreeable behavior?


To dominate him?


No. Just give the dog a safe means of satisfying his urge to bite/connect. This may sound strange to some, but it’s absolutely true. And it can be verified quite easily.


Tippy

Years ago I got a call from a family who’d just adopted a rescue puppy named Tippy, who was about 7 months old, and they were having behavioral problems with him.


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 mount my leg for brief spurts. I ignored him, using the theory that a behavior that isn’t being reinforced will eventually extinguish itself. This had no effect. 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 mount my leg.


I finally realized that Tippy needed my help to calm down. So the next time he came over—but before he could start mounting—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 a while he got tired of chewing on my hand and went under the table to lie down.

In less than a minute he was sound asleep.


As I walked home I thought about Tippy’s reasons for humping me. He seemed more frustrated than dominant. But why 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 phase. (Remember, puppies are designed by Nature to connect to their environment primarily through their teeth and jaws.)


This 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 me satisfied his need to connect orally. Once that need had been satisfied, the humping behavior disappeared.


I see only one possible explanation. I said earlier that my hypothesis about the underlying cause of a dog’s humping behavior is easily verifiable, and it is: if a dog has a humping problem, and you give him an outlet for his urge to bite—ideally through playing tug-of-war, letting him win, and praising him for winning (preferably outdoors)—the need to hump should go away, as if on its own.


What I think is most interesting about this 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.

Funny thing is, he never tried to hump me again.

LCK

“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?” Join Me on Facebook! Follow Me on Twitter! Link Up With Me on Linkedin!


Footnotes:

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) Sigmund Freud hypothesized that this need to connect that’s a very clear part of Nature eventually evolved into the sex drive. “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 to described as sexual may have been in operation from the very first.” (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” The Freud Reader, p. 615). 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 normal sexual energy.





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