Flash back to the late 1990s, my husband used to have a service dog named Bailey. One of Bailey’s funniest commands (due to how Bailey was trained I will use the word command) was Hump Free. It meant stop humping whatever you are currently humping. It could have been a person sitting on the ground, a pillow, dog bed, another dog or a large stuffed animal. If he did not stop humping, he would be corrected, either by a leash correction or a shock from his shock collar. He would slowly slink off and hang his head down avoiding everyone. The trainers deemed him dominant and that the behavior could not be tolerated.
Flash forward to 2015. Understanding humping is evolving research. We are starting to understand that humping as a very hard-wired behavior that can have a variety of “reasons” behind the action.
It’s Not All About Sex!
Puppy play is where most people first start seeing humping behaviors. It is amazing how fast even the most educated person becomes uncomfortable when their dog is humping or being humped. I have seen everything from yelling, grabbing the dog off, to angrily removing him from play. Humping in puppy play is totally normal and natural. No, it does not mean they are trying to have sex with the other puppies or that they are dominant. Nor does it mean your puppy is “gay” when it only humps other male dogs. (Trust me I have heard this more than once!) When does humping become a problem in a playgroup? It is a problem when a puppy targets one particular puppy and will not stop. It becomes necessary to intervene if the puppy being humped is trying to communicate to stop and the dog does not, or grabs on harder. As an instructor you need to look around and evaluate why this puppy is humping. If I see a lot of humping it is a red flag to me that something else is going on. Most puppies would rather wrestle or run and chase then hump.
But what about the dog that will hump anything – beds, people, stuffed toys? What we understand more and more now is that humping is a by-product of arousal. Most often that arousal is in the form of stress. Imagine a dog who is stressed. It is a dog who “would never bite in a million years”. Maybe it is that dog who is submissively compliant, the dog you can do anything to, no matter what. It’s that dog that avoids having its nails trimmed but does nothing to show it is bothered other than laying down with its paws tucked in, not letting you have access. Imagine having all that bundled up stress but having no outlet for it? What does a dog do? Some turn to humping to relieve that stress. You can see the stress in their faces and other body language, even while humping. Over the years it has become more and more clear to me how humping is a product of stress.
Sometimes It’s Just Stress.
Many years ago I had a client, a Jack Russell Terrier, who had a number of obsessive compulsive disorder habits. One of his habits that greatly bothered the owners was his licking of the metal on their sliding glass door. He would lick this non-stop for hours if not interrupted. If interrupted he would grab his bed and hump it on and off until he was exhausted and fell asleep. The owners decided this was a behavior they could live with so when he started licking, they would cue him to “take to another room” which meant go to the guest bedroom for his bed to hump. In their house humping the bed was a better outlet to his stress and OCD behaviors.
Another client is a beagle who we have been helping deal with inter-pack aggression. The beagle attacked and put puncture wounds into her female housemate. In addition to many changes that were set up in the client’s house we decided to muzzle train the beagle as a safety measure. We wanted the older dog to be safe as we were counter conditioning the dogs to live together peacefully again. The beagle had a history of humping when stressed. We started shaping her to wear the muzzle. She was happily working with me putting her muzzle on and being rewarded for wearing it. We stopped to take a break in training and she immediately grabbed my leg and started humping. We let her, no interruption, she stopped, exhaled and was ready to work again, by choice. We trained a little longer and when we stopped she immediately started humping again. We knew that even though she was working with us in training, she was highly stressed. It was not our intent to stress her so the training session ended, much to her relief.
Recently in my own house my middle dog, Rizzo the American Water Spaniel, has started humping our youngest dog, Bueller, the Burnham Terrier. Most would think this is a “power struggle” in dominance. It is not. Rizzo is the dog in charge of the dog world in our house, in most areas. (Remember these things can be and usually are fluid
and are item, location, and/or situation dependent.) Rizzo has been in charge since she walked in as a young
puppy. It’s just her personality, as it was in her litter, and did not change once she moved in here. So why is she humping Bueller so much? Stress! Our dog world recently has had some changes. Our oldest dog Dara was recently diagnosed with cancer in her head and neck. It has changed how she is interacting with the other dogs. It has raised my stress level. It has changed how much everyone is getting exercised and trained. All things that lead to Rizzo’s stress levels. When Rizzo is stressed Bueller gets humped. Bueller does not need to be Rizzo’s stress relief so we interrupt this and give Rizzo her alternative stress outlet, her sucky ball.
Sometimes It’s Just Arousal.
Some dogs will hump as a result of other types of arousal too. My Toller Dara loves to train. She has been my competition obedience dog for years. Frequently we train with reinforcers other than food, since we can’t take food into the competition ring with us. One of Dara’s favorite non-food reinforcers is her Wubba toy. If I took the Wubba out and set it in the area where we train she would start air-humping – making the humping action but not on anything. She knew that reward for work would be the Wubba, way too exciting for her. She would settle in and work, and then earn her Wubba and the air humping would start again. Wubba, oh Wubba how we love our Wubba! She would never air hump when training for food or even tennis balls. That is how we knew it was about the excitement of the Wubba and not the stress of the training.
So Now What?
Clients frequently ask me what to do when their dog is humping. First, look at the situation. Why is your dog humping? The whys becomes important, because it will determine how we will work with the behavior. There are three important ways to deal with the humping.
The first is to recognize if your dog is humping is due to stress and if so why? What can you do anything to reduce their stress, therefore reducing their humping? If you can’t reduce the stress how can you manage the situation to help your dog? Is there conflict between two dogs in a playgroup with one of them non-stop humping? If so, it would be time to end the playtime and go home. Being proactive (leaving while it is “just humping”) will most likely stop the behavior from escalating to aggression. Maybe the arrival of a new baby (or any other major life changing event!) in the house has caused the stress? It is never too late to start desensitizing your dog to the baby sights and sounds. Also, start working on a relaxation protocol with the help of a trainer. Doing this before the baby is mobile will help your dog for years to come. Is your dog humping your mother-in-law’s leg? (Oh the horror, on so many levels!) This may be an example of your dog reacting to your stress in the situation. Remember how sensitive our dogs can be to our moods and anxiety. Management might be the best solution for both you and your dog. Putting your dog in its crate or another room with a yummy filled Kong for some “chill-out” time, is probably the easiest solution for everyone involved!
The second is to realize that humping might be a behavior that needs help beyond behavior modification or management. Is humping one of the symptoms of a dog with a general anxiety disorder? If a dog is humping as just one of the many signs of his anxiety you might want to talk to your vet. It might be time to investigate holistic-based supplements or medication for anxiety. As the case with my Jack Russell client with OCD behaviors, medication was the best solution. It greatly reduced the humping. Then when he did hump they taught him to go into a separate room.
Lastly making a decision to let them hump. I make this decision much more frequently than I used to! The decision making process has to include: are they hurting themselves, antagonizing another dog or in a “human socially unacceptable” situation? If the answer to all of those questions is no, I let my dog hump. Dogs deserve the ability to self-relieve their stress. (Remember it’s not sexual!) Imagine if someone told you that when you had a really rough day you could not have chocolate or wine! It could get ugly. So why would you not let your dog have the same ability?
Looking back to Bailey, I now realize that his humping was one of the first signs of his stress of being trained as a service dog. The organization did not recognize this, instead they corrected him for the behavior, putting more stress on the situation. Bailey quickly learned that humping was not a way to relieve his stress. He stopped humping. The organization thought they “fixed” the behavior, because the humping had stopped. Shortly after the humping behavior was extinguished Bailey developed a variety of other stress displacement behaviors. The final stress displacement behavior was becoming dog reactive. His dog reactivity was the end to his service dog career. We finally realized it was too much stress for him to be a service dog. He retired and lived a stress-free, hump free life being a house dog with us for many years. I am always thankful for Bailey for starting me down the path of peaceful, positive, stress-free training.