Dealing With Canine Humping
Although humping is considered a sexual action, it can also be used to signal power and rank. Dogs do, in effect, employ humping as a way of asserting authority. Whatever the motivation, when humping is directed toward peoples’ legs, or objects in the environment, the result is the same: embarrassment for the dog owner and any guests who happen to be present.
Intact (unneutered) male dogs are most likely to engage in this disturbing behavior but neutered males and females may also express the behavior. The presence of sex hormones facilitates but does not dictate this annoying behavior. One out of three neutered male dogs and the occasional neutered female still engage in humping years after neuter surgery. Even when it’s slated to disappear, humping may persist for several months after surgery before its frequency and intensity eventually wanes.
Why Do Dogs Hump?
The first and most obvious reason dogs hump is sexual. Intact males can perform humping as displaced sexual behavior analogous to masturbation. The fact that some dogs achieve orgasm while humping is testimony to this fact. Some male dogs continue to hump after neutering, possibly attempting to recreate the pleasure that the behavior once brought them. This could also be the reason why neutering is not immediately effective in curtailing the behavior in formerly intact dogs. It could be that it takes some time for the neutered dog to learn that things will never be the same. In one mixed-sex colony of intact dogs, neutering of males did not change the frequency of mounting or even penetration of bitches by these males for years following neuter surgery, indicating just how potent the memory of pleasure was in these dogs.
But sexual motivation is not the whole story because inexperienced neutered males and some females hump as well. The conclusion must be that mounting behavior (“humping”) is genetically encoded in both sexes and may be activated by not only testosterone but also by other natural forces.
Motivationally speaking, dominance, or at least the wish to be dominant, seems to be another factor. Perhaps dominant “wannabes” obtain some intrinsic reward from engaging in the behavior. A chemical in the brain called serotonin is intimately involved in the desire and capacity to be dominant, and this chemical may play a role in the humping behavior. For instance, if a dog that previously hadn’t engaged in humping has low levels of brain serotonin, he may feel as if he’s in a funk. This situation might lead to feelings of agitation and also tend to enhance aggressive or impulsive behavior. The mental conquest afforded by humping might boost serotonin levels, as occurs in monkeys following a victorious interactions with other monkeys, creating a feeling of well-being and satisfaction.
In nature, the dominant dog is the one who get the privilege of breeding receptive bitches. It is not “first come, first served” but truly a contest of mental and physical strength. Nature has designed the brain centers that control sexual behavior and dominant aggressive behavior to be confluent so that sex drive and the need for social/political success are virtually inseparable qualities in all group-living species. Even in the absence of sex hormones and “true” sexual motivation, the other half of the equation is still operational, however redundant that may seem.
The fact that females also hump is hardly surprising. No behavior is purely male or purely female, though “sexually dimorphic” behaviors are, by definition, more common in one sex than the other. Humping is one such behavior, being far more common in males yet also a feature of some dominant females’ behavioral repertoires. In addition, intact bitches may have appreciable levels of testosterone in their bloodstream, providing another facet to this already complicated situation.
Dealing With Humping Behavior in Dogs
Humping, while a nuisance for dog owners, is an interesting and biologically appropriate behavior. It is designed by nature in the interests of procreation but also signifies power and control.
Although it may seem counterintuitive that females would be programmed to hump, no procreative behaviors are confined only to one sex only. Males are, in effect, modifications of the basic female blueprint so each sex has the potential for performing any and all of the behaviors exhibited by the other one, including sexual behaviors. Humping is one of those more-likely-to-be-seen-in-a-male types of behaviors, along with roaming, aggression to other males, and leg lifting. We should recognize the sameness and celebrate the difference!