This morning on an otherwise pleasant hike and swim with our dogs, we encountered for the 6th time a woman with a dog that consistently humps other dogs. This neutered male, mixed breed is a repeat offender of note, which is hardly surprising, as his owner’s response, when we try to remove her dog from the back of whichever dog he has targeted, is always “just let them sort it out”. When my husband nudged the dog off of Cruz with his foot today, he was reprimanded by the owner, who declared that we clearly knew nothing about dogs and should have left Cruz to “sort him out, so that they can establish a hierarchy”. As she continued her lecture on “social dominance in play”, I decided to walk away and try to preserve my holiday mood (and my blood pressure), leaving my poor husband trying to explain that the last thing we want is either of our dogs learning that it is a good idea to “sort out” other dogs.
So, what is humping all about and why is it that some people think it is okay and normal for dogs to harass other dogs they encounter out in public?
Well, humping can be many things: Of course, humping can be a sexual behaviour. An intact male mounting a bitch in season is normal reproductive behaviour, but males and females (intact or sterilised) may hump in other circumstances as well. In many cases humping occurs at the end of play, when play starts getting a little too intense or exciting and a dog becomes over-aroused. This is often a sign that they need a break to calm down. There is also a school of thought that puppies and adolescents may hump during play in order to rehearse sexual behaviour patterns, in the same way that predatory and defensive behaviour patterns are rehearsed in play.
What needs to be kept in mind though, is that true play is mutual – it is not inflicted on another dog against its will. For any of the behaviour patterns mentioned above to start being rehearsed in play, a play session needs to be underway first. This means that a dog will invite play with a partner through signals like play bows, bounces, shoulder bumps, paw taps and short bursts of sprinting AWAY from the play partner (inviting a chase). For play to be appropriate, the other dog would need to respond similarly and engage in a play session. Only when it was clear that both dogs were interested and engaged, would it be appropriate to start rehearsing more intense behaviours (like play-biting, wrestling, chasing, knocking and mounting). The more familiar the dogs are with each other, the quicker they will usually engage in intense play behaviours that involve physical contact.
To try and understand this idea, picture going to gym with a good friend. If you were both into boxing, you might very quickly (based on your previous history together) put on your gloves and start sparring, without much exchange of dialogue or negotiation. Why? - Because you have engaged in this way before and this interaction is what you are expecting. But imagine now that you are alone lifting weights quietly in the corner and a total stranger walks up and punches you in the arm – how would you respond? It would clearly be totally inappropriate and depending on your temperament you might leave the gym in a hurry or yell at them (or even hit them back)! But, what if they walked up and said: “Hey, I’ve seen you here before and I know you box. My partner’s not here tonight, so I wondered if you’d like to pair up with me?” You could say: “Sure, let me get my gloves” and then carefully start to engage. It would probably take you a while to get used to this new partner and you might be quite cautious at first, before getting fully into it. You might also say, “Thanks, but I’m not up to it tonight, maybe next time” and unless you’re dealing with someone a bit weird, they would take the hint and move off!
Today, Rosie encountered a handsome, elderly yellow Labrador. Rosie is completely in love with such dogs and she tried her hardest to get him to play – bowing, bouncing and sprinting away from him in the hope he would chase her. Unfortunately for Rosie, he was not interested and after a polite greeting, he plodded on with his owner. So, Rosie moved off, disappointed, but accepting and not pushing the issue. THAT is normal dog behaviour. Rushing up and jumping on another dog’s back is NOT normal dog behaviour.
So why do dogs sometimes engage in ways that are inappropriate? Usually, dogs that hump, chase, throw themselves at other dogs or act like “bullies” simply have poor social skills or have found a coping mechanism for social encounters, because they feel insecure or uncomfortable with other dogs on some level. When a dog is uncomfortable in a social situation (anxious, unsure, insecure, frustrated, nervous), they will find a way to cope. Humping is an internally reinforcing behaviour and can help counteract feelings of unease. Unfortunately, the more this behaviour is rehearsed, the more entrenched it becomes i.e. it becomes the default way of dealing with any other dog, because emotionally it “works”. What the owners of dogs who engage in this type of behaviour often don’t realise, is that their dog is struggling in a similar way to a dog that is snapping or snarling at another dog or running away.
So, let’s be clear about a few things:
Dogs are NOT wolves and they do NOT form packs with strange dogs, so there is NO hierarchy to be sorted out!
It is NOT normal or socially acceptable behaviour for adult dogs to throw themselves at or on top of strange dogs they have no existing relationship or history with.
Out of context humping is usually a sign of internal conflict, lack of social skills, frustration or anxiety.
The more a behaviour is practised, the more entrenched it becomes.
On point 4, it is important to note that the best way to stop inappropriate behaviour, is to carefully manage your dog so that he or she does not have the opportunity to rehearse it. If necessary, keep your dog on a harness (far gentler and less likely to alter normal behaviour than a collar) and lead (yes, a lead!) when greeting dogs that are likely to be targets of inappropriate behaviour or teach your dog a strong “watch me” cue and focus them on you and away from such dogs while they are passing. Some dogs have an issue with a particular and identifiable “type” of dog and may be fine with others. If this is the case, then free interactions with “safe” dogs may be beneficial. When greeting dogs, keep meetings short (3 second rule) and move your dog on BEFORE there is a chance for things to escalate. REWARD your dog for coming away from other dogs like mad!! You cannot reward this behaviour enough – break out the best treats and most favourite toy. DO NOT be stingy in this regard.
Lastly, why do we not just “allow them to sort it out”? Because they might do so in a way that teaches both dogs things we do not want them to learn. If an aggressive response is directed at the humper, what will he learn? Well, it may confirm to him that other dogs are not to be trusted and increase his insecurity around other dogs and therefore intensify the behaviour or he may escalate emotionally and switch strategies to something even less pleasant, like an aggressive response. What about the dog doing the “sorting out”? Well, I have two Rottweilers that together weigh 100kg. I NEVER want them to learn that “sorting out” other dogs is the best way of dealing with an uncomfortable situation. Yes, telling another dog off for inappropriate social behaviour is normal, but my dogs live in a human world where the slightest snarl or snap from a big dog can cause panic. Dogs are dogs – they know how to tell a dog off if it is really needed, but they do NOT need to learn that this is a good option when faced with even the mildest threat. And this is precisely what happens when they are constantly put in situations where they are harassed by other dogs and are left to cope with it on their own. They will eventually learn that aggression works and it will become their default coping mechanism at the first sign of trouble. THAT is precisely how 90% of aggression problems start.
I have devoted an enormous amount of energy towards reinforcing my dogs for walking away from trouble and confrontation with great success - I am not willing to jeopardise this and undo my careful training just to teach your dog a lesson, because you are not willing to control him or her! This is not something you should expect from any responsible and caring dog owner.