My dog Sam does all kinds of crazy things around other dogs, including humping them during play. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it makes me nervous, and I wish I had a way to tell if he’s just playing. If dog humping really is a canine social faux pas, what can I do? Please help—I don’t want my dog (or me!) to become a dog-park pariah.
—Charles & Sam
Dog humping can make everyone feel weird; it’s just so awkward. Murphy’s law—anything that can go wrong, will go wrong—often seems to come into play as well: the dog your dog has chosen to, um, befriend probably belongs to the one person at the park whose opinion matters to you—maybe the cute single dog-lover you’d like to meet, or the super-critical person rumored to throw great parties. In the time it takes your heart to sink, the situation goes from, “Woo-hoo, our dogs are playing!” to “What in heaven’s name is going on with those two?”
What’s going on is pretty normal behavior, actually. Lots of dogs—males and females alike—do it. Humping (more properly called mounting) tends to happen when a dog’s arousal level is very high. When you say that your dog does “all kinds of crazy things around other dogs,” it sounds as though he’s overly excited, and that’s likely the reason he’s mounting other dogs.
Humping is often associated with play, greetings or other situations that lead to high arousal with dogs. By the way, the words “arousal” and “excitement” in this context have no erotic connotation, but it’s clearly not a winning strategy to shout, “Nobody freak out—it’s not sexual!” (There’s no reason to go from awkward to crazy-awkward, after all.)
As a rule, mounting upsets people more than it upsets dogs. However, like most rules, there are exceptions, and some dogs won’t tolerate being mounted. The humpees who object to it may make their feelings clear with a growl or a snap. Then, things can go from uncomfortable to problematic. Even if the humper is trying to play, the other dog may react in a way that leads to tension or even aggression between the dogs.
Because so many behaviors in play are borrowed from other contexts, such as fighting, hunting and mating, determining whether a behavior is appropriate play, awkward and inappropriate attempts to play, or something else altogether is not always completely straightforward.
A good guideline is that it’s only play if everyone involved is having fun. That means you should intervene and stop the behavior if a dog is correcting your dog, trying to avoid the interaction or clearly not having a good time.
If the other dog doesn’t care and the other people don’t either, the mounting need not be an issue, especially if it’s short-lived. Often, great play happens after the initial excitement is over. If the humping is relentless or if the recipient of this behavior keeps trying to escape, you should intervene and break it up.
Interrupting a humping dog is easier said than done. If he won’t come when called or back off when told to “leave it,” you may have to go to him and gently lead him away by the collar or with a leash. Then, redirect him to another dog or person to play with, try to get him interested in a toy, or remove him from the situation entirely. Your dog may be one of the many who gets very excited at the dog park with so many dogs present but is capable of controlling his emotions and behavior when just one or two other dogs are around.
For the record, dogs share none of our embarrassment about humping, and don’t care when we give them nicknames like Wednesday (Hump Day), Humpty-Dumpty or other names that clearly reference their tendency to mount (Olympus, Fuji, Everest). Unless a dog is upset by it, we would be wise to take their low-key approach when humping happens.