How to Stop Your Dog’s Annoying Humping Behavior
Your dog is probably just stress-humping. Eliminate the stress and modify his behavior with these simple tips.
[Updated January 4, 2019]
Our 13-year-old Pomeranian, Scooter, loves to hump his purple stuffed bear. We find it harmless, so we don’t try to stop him, though, honestly, he doesn’t get that many opportunities to practice the behavior. His intimate bear-time is limited because our Corgi, Lucy, shreds stuffed animals in the blink of an eye, so Scooter only gets his bear in my training center office when Lucy isn’t around, which isn’t all that often. But there are many dogs whose mounting behavior is more disturbing – because it embarrasses their humans, offends observers, or worse, distresses the person or other animal who is the unfortunate humpee of the moment.
Scooter’s purple bear could care less. Other dogs, and humans who are the target of the behavior, may be intimidated, antagonized, or even injured by the overbearing attentions of a dog dedicated to mounting. I was once on the receiving end of a Boxer’s persistent mounting while conducting a behavior assessment at a shelter. This dog was so big and strong that he actually was able to pull me to the floor of the kennel – a frightening and potentially very dangerous situation, had there not been other staff there to rescue me. And I don’t get taken down by a dog easily!
Dog Humping Isn't About Sex
Mounting behavior is most commonly not about sex. Oh sure, if you have a female in season and an unsterilized male dog mounting her, then yes, it is clearly about reproduction. But in today’s polite society, many dogs are spayed and neutered, and unspayed females in season are usually kept safely at home by her responsible owners.
Still, it’s not uncommon to see dogs mounting other dogs, humans, toys, other objects, and even “air-humping” – seemingly having their way with some invisible, imaginary subject. And it’s not limited to male dogs; female dogs also hump objects, people, and other dogs.
Like many canine behaviors that we humans find annoying, inconvenient, or embarrassing, dog humping is a perfectly normal behavior. And like other such annoying, inconvenient, and embarrassing behaviors, it’s perfectly reasonable for us to ask our dogs to stop, or to at least reserve the behavior for times or places that are considered more appropriate by the human family members.
So why do dogs hump? Reproduction aside, the most common reason dogs hump things is in response to stress, anxiety, and/or excitement. A trainer friend of mine tells of a friend coming to visit – a friend who lives far away, visits rarely, and who is well-loved by my trainer friend’s dog, a pit bull-mix. Roscoe was so deliriously happy about the friend’s visit that he made a full air-humping circuit of the living room before he could settle down enough to greet the guest politely. Our first Pomeranian, Dusty, would mount the sofa cushions if I took the other dogs out and left him inside. The stress of being left behind triggered the cushion-humping.
The stress and excitement of meeting other dogs is a classic cause of mounting, and one of the reasons you are highly likely to see the behavior on display in dog parks. Brief bouts that involve mounting of other dogs in canine social interactions – as long as they don’t lead to bloodletting or oppression of the mountee – are acceptable. Mounting of human body parts is not acceptable, nor is mounting that leads to dog fights.
There can also be underlying medical causes of canine mounting and masturbation. These can include urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence, and allergies that cause itching of sensitive body parts. In these cases, the dog is merely trying to relieve the discomfort caused by the medical issue. We had an allergy-prone Scottish Terrier who, in the middle of allergy flare-ups, would do push-ups on the living room carpet to scratch his itchy private parts.
Attention-seeking can be yet another reason why dogs hump. Some dogs have learned that a really good way to get their humans to engage with them is to climb on for a little ride. Remember that for many attention-starved dogs, negative attention (“Bad dog, stop that!”) is still better than no attention at all. And if some humans find the behavior amusing, positively reinforcing it with laughter and encouragement, the behavior is all the more likely to continue.
How to Stop Your Dog's Humping
So what do you do with a dog who mounts inappropriately? The first step is a trip to your veterinarian to rule out – or treat – any medical conditions that may be causing or exacerbating the behavior.
Meanwhile, do your best to manage your dog’s environment to prevent, or at least minimize, the behavior. If he aggravates other dogs at the dog park, limit his social engagements until the behavior is under control. If he persists in annoying your guests, keep him leashed, crated, behind a baby gate, or in another room when company visits, so he can’t practice the unwanted behavior.
The longer your dog has practiced his mounting behavior, the harder it will be to change. It’s logical that the sooner you intervene in your dog’s unacceptable mounting, the better your chances for behavior modification success.
Neutering is another obvious first step. A 1990 study found a 50 percent improvement in mounting behavior in 60 percent of dogs, and a 90 percent improvement in as many as 40 percent of dogs following castration. (While both male and female dogs may engage in mounting, it is more often a male dog behavior problem than a female one.)
A 1976 study determined that within 72 hours of surgery, the bulk of hormones have left the dog’s system. Since mounting is partially a learned behavior as well as hormone-driven, the extent to which neutering will help will be determined at least in part by how long the dog has been allowed to practice the behavior. Neutered dogs may still hump after surgery, but the odds are greatly reduced.
You will need to work harder to convince your adult, well-practiced dog than a young, inexperienced pup to quit climbing on other dogs. Additionally, there’s more potential for aggression with a mature dog if the recipient of unwanted attentions objects to being mounted. With both young and mature dogs, you can use time-outs to let your dog know that mounting behavior makes all fun stop. A tab (a short, 4- to 6-inch piece of leash) or a drag-line (a 4- to 6-foot light nylon cord) attached to your dog’s collar can make enforcement of time-outs faster and more effective (and safer) when you have to separate dogs.
Set up your dog for a play date with an understanding friend who has a tolerant dog. Try to find a safely fenced but neutral play yard, so that home team advantage doesn’t play a role. If a neutral yard isn’t available, the friend’s yard is better than your own, and outdoors is definitely preferable to indoors.
When you turn the dogs out together, watch yours closely. It’s a good idea to have some tools on hand to break up a fight, should one occur. If there’s no sign of mounting, let them play. Be ready to intervene if you see the beginning signs of mounting behavior in your dog. This usually occurs as play escalates and arousal increases.
When you see the first glimmerings of mounting behavior, try subtle body-blocking. Every time your dog approaches the other with obvious mounting body postures, step calmly in front of your dog to block him. If you’re particularly coordinated, you may be able to simply lean your body forward or thrust out a hip or knee to send him the message that the fun’s about to stop. This is more likely to work with the younger dog, who is less intense about his intent to mount. Be sure not to intervene if your dog appears to be initiating appropriate canine play.
If body blocking doesn’t work, as gently and unobtrusively as possible, grasp the dog’s tab or light line, give a cheerful “Oops!”, then happily announce, “Time out!” and lead your dog to a quiet corner of the play yard. (The “Oops!” is what’s called a “no reward marker – sort of like the opposite of a reward marker such as the click of a clicker. It lets your dog know that the thing he is doing at that moment is not going to be rewarded.) Sit with him there until you can tell that his arousal level has diminished, and then release him to return to his playmate. If necessary, have your friend restrain her dog at the same time so he doesn’t come pestering yours during the time-out.
Keep in mind that the earlier you intervene in the mounting behavior sequence, the more effective the intervention will be, since your dog hasn’t had time to get fully engaged in the behavior. It’s vitally important that you stay calm and cheerful about the modification program. Yelling at or physically correcting your dog increases the stress level in the environment, making more mounting behavior – and a fight, or aggression toward you – more likely to occur.
With enough time-out repetitions, most dogs will give up the mounting, at least for the time being. With an older dog for whom the habit is well ingrained, you may need to repeat your time-outs with each new play session, and you may need to restrict his playmates to those who won’t take offense to his persistently rude behavior.
With a pup or juvenile, the behavior should extinguish fairly easily with repeated time-outs, especially if he is neutered. Just keep an eye out for “spontaneous recovery,” when a behavior you think has been extinguished returns unexpectedly. Quick re-intervention with body blocks or time-outs should put the mounting to rest again.
This embarrassing behavior is handled much the same way as dog-dog mounting. One difference is that you must educate your guests as to how they should respond if your dog attempts his inappropriate behavior. Another is that some dogs will become aggressive if you physically try to remove them from a human leg or other body part. It works best to set up initial training sessions with dog-savvy friends who agree to be human mounting posts for training purposes, rather than relying on “real” guests to respond promptly and appropriately, at least until your dog starts to get the idea.
For your average, run-of-the-mill human mounting, ask your guests to immediately stand up and walk away if your dog attempts to get too cozy. Explain that it is not sexual behavior, but rather attention-seeking, and anything they try to do to talk the dog out of it or physically restrain him will only reinforce the behavior and make it worse. You can also use a light line here, to help extricate your friends from your dog’s embrace, and to give him that oh-so-useful time out.
If the behavior is too disruptive, you can tether your dog in the room where you are all socializing, so he still gets to be part of the social experience without repeatedly mugging your guests.
If your dog becomes aggressive when thwarted, he should be shut safely away in his crate when company comes. Social hour is not an appropriate time to work on any aggressive behavior; it puts your guests at risk, and prevents all of you from being able to relax and enjoy the occasion.
If your dog becomes growly, snappy, or otherwise dangerous when you try to remove him from a human, you are dealing with serious behavior challenge. You would be wise to work with a qualified, positive reinforcement-based behavior consultant who can help you stay safe while you modify this behavior. The program remains essentially the same – using time-outs to take away the fun every time the behavior happens, but may also involve the use of muzzles, and perhaps pharmaceutical intervention with your veterinarian’s assistance, if necessary.
Dog owners are often surprised to discover that some dogs will masturbate. Our diminutive Dusty, pillager of the sofa pillows, discovered early in life that if he approaches someone who was sitting with their legs crossed, the person’s foot was just the right height for him to to stand over a raised human foot and engage in a little self-pleasuring. As soon as we realized what he was doing, we squelched that behavior by removing his opportunity; we’d put both feet on the floor and that was that.
There’s really no harm in canine masturbation, as long as the objects used are reasonably appropriate (i.e., dog toys, as opposed to your bed pillows!), and it doesn’t become obsessive. Removing an inappropriate object or resorting to cheerful time-outs can redirect the behavior to objects that are more acceptable, such as a stuffed dog toy.
If your dog practices the behavior to the degree that is appears obsessive – a not uncommon problem in zoo animals, but rare in dogs – then you may need some behavior modification help. A behavior is generally considered obsessive when it is causes harm to the organism or interferes with his ability to lead a normal life. For example, if your dog is rubbing himself raw on the Berber carpet, or spends 20 hours a day having fun in the bedroom, you’re looking at obsessive behavior.
There are behavior modification programs that can help with canine obsessive-compulsive disorders, and they often require pharmaceutical intervention, especially if the obsession is well-developed.
The "Say Please" Program
In addition to specific behavior modification programs for mounting behavior, a “Say Please” program can be an important key to your ultimate success. No, we’re not suggesting you allow your dog to do inappropriate mounting if he says “please” first; a Say Please program requires that he perform a polite behavior, such as “sit,” before he gets any good stuff (like dinner, treats, or petting, or going outside). This helps create structure in his world and reminds him that you are in control of the good stuff. Since a fair amount of mounting has to do with stress, and structure helps reduce stress, “Say Please” is right on target. See "Is Your Dog Spoiled?" for more details.
Eliminate Your Dog's Stress
Because stress is a significant part of mounting behavior, the more stressors you can remove from your dog’s world, the better. Learn to recognize signs of stress in your dog and reduce the stressors in his life.
“Good Manners” classes are also of benefit. The better you and your dog can communicate with each other, the less stressful life is for both of you. If he’s trained to respond promptly to cues, you can use the technique of “asking for an incompatible behavior” to minimize mounting. If you see your dog approaching a guest with a gleam in his eye, your cue to “Go to your place!” or “Leave it!” will divert him. He can’t “Down” and mount a leg at the same time. Nor can he do pushups on the rug if he is responding to your request to “Sit.”
If you start early and are consistent about reducing your dog’s stress, removing reinforcement for your dog’s inappropriate mounting, and reinforcing alternative/incompatible behaviors, chances are you can succeed in making the embarrassing behavior go away.
Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog-training classes and courses for trainers.