Why do dogs hump?

January 22nd 2014

Male or female, intact or neutered, dogs hump. They hump each other. They hump our legs. They hump cushions. Sometimes they even self-pleasure. For us, it’s embarrassing. We get awkward in social situations when our dogs decide to ‘get going’. Why do they always seem to choose these social settings to show us up?

Normally, humping is simply a sign of arousal. Dogs get wound up during play and they start humping. They get anxious about children who have turned up at the house running round screaming and start humping their legs. They get stressed about the building work going on at home and they start self-pleasuring. They get frustrated that the human shut the lounge door on them, and they start humping.

Humping may relieve a dog’s anxiety in a difficult situation. They might receive human attention for the behaviour (even telling them to “Stop it!” is attention) which might be enough to reinforce the behaviour. Humping can be a calming signal – an indication that the interaction has become too arousing. Humping is also pleasurable and therefore self-reinforcing.

In order to change the behaviour, we first need to establish what emotion is causing it – anxiety, frustration, over-arousal, fear? And what are the triggers – children, visitors, noises, inconsistency?

Firstly, exposure to the trigger needs to be managed. Ideally the dog should not be put into a situation where it normally starts humping. Keep interactions low-key so that humping does not become a coping strategy for calming the situation – or, use the first sign of humping as an indication that the dog is starting to struggle with the situation. If the dog has a specific object of their affection (their bed or a cushion, for example), calmly remove them when the humping starts so the dog can’t rehearse the behaviour. Stay calm and don’t inadvertently reinforce the behaviour by reacting. Call them away and provide the dog with an alternative behaviour that will encourage relaxation, such as a chew or stuffed Kong.

Neutering is not always the solution for a dog that humps because it’s rarely a purely sexual behaviour. In fact, if the underlying emotions causing the humping are related to anxiety or fear then neutering would not be advised until advice has been sought from a behaviourist.

If you find that your dog’s humping has got out of control, speak to your vet about getting a referral to a suitably qualified behaviourist.