Sunday, September 20, 2015

Awkward Moments in Pet Ownership: The Humping Dog

My previous dog was a Basset Hound, and like many of his breed, he was a clown. He loved to play and, on occasion, he would hump his favorite bear. This often manifested in a display which reminded me of a football center trying to hike a football - repeatedly. Needless to say it was a great giggle point for my friends, but I’d typically ignore it since it was easily manageable and preventable. Not everyone is that lucky.

Mounting or “humping” makes owners feel uncomfortable, even though animals know nothing of being prudish. I suspect much of the discomfort relates to the thought that their pet is showing sexual or “dominant” behavior while grinding away on a friend’s leg during a party. 

In reality, mounting is a very complex behavior which has a myriad of causes, none of which are related to your dog finding people attractive or trying to dominate your guest. To start off with, let’s go over things we know: humping is a natural behavior found in dogs for reproductive purposes. Any natural behavior is one that you’ll probably see puppies practicing while playing with one another. This goes for both sexes. If your pet is altered, it may decrease the biological need for the behavior, but it doesn’t remove it from their doggy “vocabulary”.  The behavior may be lessened, but can still erupt if there’s a local female in heat. Additionally, humping feels good - dogs will masturbate and will find an object (or person) as an acceptable proxy.

Another reason for humping is as coping mechanism to deal with social stress such as excitement, anxiety or frustration As a displacement behavior, humping fulfills the need to do “something” to dispel stress when emotionally conflicted—akin to human chewing on their finger nails. A prime time where humping will happen in this case may be during transitions (someone arriving or leaving), during intense play or when the pet can’t get what it really wants (a treat, a toy or access to another person or animal).

The issue at hand with this behavior is the human reaction to it: embarrassment. Reactions to the behavior are important since it could be considered as encouragement. If people are laughing, the dog sees this as a cue to do it again. Keep in mind, depending on the type of dog you have, yelling can ALSO be reinforcing if the goal was to get your attention. In general the act is self-rewarding, so don’t add to it! In rare cases, this can become a compulsive behavior (where the pet isn’t able to stop himself from performing the behavior). With all of this in mind, how can you explain to your dog you want him to be remain “G” rated?

Determine a few things: when does your dog do it, where, in what circumstance and for how long does it occur. Can your dog be interrupted when engaged in the behavior? These are essential questions. 

If you discover your dog engages in the behavior within the first 10 minutes from the arrival of guests - he may be doing it due to stress or excitement. Keep your dog in a bedroom with a food treat when guests arrive. When he seems calm, this is a good time to introduce him to the new arrivals. If he attaches himself to someone, call him or lead him away (no need to be angry, but apologize to your guest!) to an area where he can settle with a food toy or other activity.

If it seems to happen at the dog park when the dogs are playing, it may be play behavior. Teach your dog to have mini time-outs for treats if you see he’s getting revved up. Practice simple obedience cues for rewards, then send him back out again. Typical play behavior may be exhibited by a dog who mounts another for a few moments and goes back to playing. If your dog is the type who’s making the rounds humping a single or multiple dogs over and over again consider it may be a displacement behavior due to social stress. Consider a smaller or more mellow play group. If that appears too much, consider just taking him for walks with other dogs rather than overwhelming him with a “pack” at the park.

If your dog is mounting objects, determine if this is a big deal. Really, it’s not hurting anyone, so turning a blind eye isn’t wrong. If he’s doing it frequently, see if he can be positively distracted. DO NOT punish your dog for this behavior! If he’s doing it out of anxiety, it will just feed the reason for doing it in the first place. If his focus is on an inanimate object, you can manage the situation: put item away and engage him in other activities. Additionally, you might try introducing an incompatible behavior: Distract your dog for a game of tug or ask him to “sit”. It’s ideal to invoke these cues prior to your pet engaging in full blown humping. If your dog can’t be distracted (you’ve tried to remove him from the situation but he goes immediately back to it) consider an appointment with a Veterinary Behaviorist. 

A final note: don’t assume that your dog is trying to be dominant. Labeling an action as “dominant” is often misapplied and can erode the bond with the pet. Again, this behavior is most often shown in numerous emotional states which have nothing to do with a “power play” between people, animals or even stuffed animals.