The Truth About Humping

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA CDBC

Lots of dogs hump.  For people who live with those dogs, it can be embarrassing and upsetting.  We humans aren’t comfortable talking about things related to sex, especially when our beloved dogs are being indiscreet in front of guests.  For many of us, dogs are cute innocent “babies.”  I guess now is a good time to remember they’re also animals, and animals routinely practice behavior related to their own survival.  That includes sexual behavior: humping.

From: Houston PetTalk Magazine (October 2011)

What baffles a lot of people is that dogs hump in situations that have nothing to do with reproduction.  I have a client whose 4 month old female puppy humped a stuffed animal.  We caught our dog Stewie humping his bed.  Dogs hump human legs.  Doggie daycare professionals deal with humping dogs all day, males and females, neutered and spayed.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it.  What’s going on here?

I asked trainer educator and author Jean Donaldson (The Culture Clash, Train Your Dog like a Pro).  She zeroed in on Modal Action Patterns.  Those are the behaviors all dogs share related to fighting, fleeing, feeding and reproducing.  She said, “All of the Modal Action Pattern categories are present in play.  That’s what play is.”  Social animals, including dogs, routinely play fight and play chase. They even pretend to stalk and hunt, so we shouldn’t ignore the idea that humping might be play sex.  However, that may not be the whole story of humping.

While humping is common in play groups and day care settings, it also occurs in other contexts.  Some dogs hump people and inanimate objects.  Sugarland Veterinary Behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug says most of the time humping is “merely a nonspecific sign of arousal.”  Trainers and day care counselors agree.  Dogs get wound up or nervous and they hump.  Pamela Johnson is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in San Diego.  Her dog used to hump her leg during training sessions.  She videotaped the behavior and noted that the humping was caused by excitement over training and frustration when the lesson got difficult.  Still, identifying what sets off the behavior doesn’t fully answer the question: Why humping and why not some other behavior?

We should keep in mind that anything our dog does regularly is reinforced behavior.  The dog is getting something out of it.  For example, dogs who wrestle or chase during play are reinforced by other dogs who enjoy wrestling and chasing.  Similarly, dogs might enjoy the attention they get for humping.  Humping may also relieve a dog’s anxiety in an uncertain social situation.  It may just be pleasurable.  That pleasure, says Dr. Haug, “obviously would come under the sexual category.”  So, we’re back to that uncomfortable subject.  Regardless, all of this information leads us to some good ideas about stopping humping.

Make humping no fun and not a big deal.   This really means we need to control our own behavior and not react when we see our dog humping.  Don’t accidentally reinforce the behavior by freaking out.

Control the Dog’s environment.  In the case of the client’s dog who was humping the stuffed toy and in the case of our own dog humping his bed, we simply removed the objects of their affection.  People who work at doggie day care facilities calmly and gently remove a humping dog from its playmate.  In all cases, the dog can’t practice the unwanted behavior anymore.

Teach the dog a better behavior.  For the client’s dog and Stewie we replaced humping objects with more appropriate enrichment toys (Kong Toys and other treat puzzles).  In daycare, counselors might direct a humping dog to a less disturbing play behavior.  Trainer Pamela Johnson greatly decreased her dog’s humping by interrupting it and taking a short break from training.  She held and petted her dog until he calmed down, then she returned to training less-frustrating tasks.  In all cases, the handler is teaching the dog to do something other than hump.

That’s the bottom line really.  Stay calm.  Interrupt the humping.  Encourage the dog to do something else, anything else.  I might choose some of those other Modal Action Pattern behaviors, like a game of tug, or fetch, or even some nice quiet time with a chew toy.  The humping one – not many of us really want to see our innocent little dogs doing that.  Sure, it’s normal animal behavior.  But don’t forget, we’re only human.

Houston Dog Trainer Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC is the director of training and behavior at Rover Oaks Pet Resort

Originally published in Houston PetTalk Magazine, October 2011.



Good Days and Tad Days

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

Seriously, most of my days are good days.  My best days are Tad days.

It takes me a little more than an hour to get to the clinic where Tiffany and Tad work. On the way I think about Tad, how much he’s improved, and the work we still need to do.  I also sing along (a bit too loudly) to some of my favorite music, but that’s off the subject.

The truth is Tad is improving – a lot.  I walked into the treatment area of the clinic unannounced and he didn’t make as much as a peep.  Tiffany says he’s not barking very much at all when he’s in that area looking out into the lobby.  He doesn’t bark at all anymore when the front door chime rings; and he greets people nicely in the lobby.

We focused this visit on teaching Tad some manners in the treatment area (go to your spot and stay).  We also addressed his habit of biting for attention during play.  Play biting isn’t the same as emotionally driven fear biting or so-called aggressive biting.  Still, it hurts just the same.  I was pleased when Tad and I played a bit and he didn’t bite me.  I was equally chagrined when he gave Tiffany a few good chomps.

For dogs, the function of bites that are rooted in fear or aggression are all about making something stop or go away.  The function of play bites is to get something going.  The motivation is totally different.  How do we stop it?  First, we teach Tad how to control his play.  Good dog play includes pauses, short breaks.  Watch dogs at play and you’ll see them stop and start often.  That’s the polite way to play.  So we’re teaching Tad how to start play with humans (when we prompt it) and how to “settle,” which means sit and take a short break.  The idea is to keep these training sessions short so Tad doesn’t get excited enough to bite.  If he bites and ignores the “settle” cue, he gets a “too bad” and a time out.  For a social animal like Tad, nothing could be worse than losing a round of play for a trip to the penalty box.  That’s how he’s going to learn to watch his mouth.

Tad uses his teeth a lot playing with dogs too.  That got me wondering about the great mystery of his past.  A lot of play biters were single puppies, or puppies removed from the litter too early (prior to 7 weeks of age).  Was Tad an only child?  Did he loose his siblings too early?  Puppies are good about teaching their littermates to mind their mouthy manners. I get the sense Tad missed out on this learning.

Dogs can’t tell their own stories.  We’re left to wonder, what was Tad’s life like before Tiffany found him, skinny and sick, lost and forgotten?  So much of his behavior tells us he lived with people.  Who were they?  Did they send him away or just let him wander off?  Was it because of the biting?  Do they think about him?  Do they miss him?

I think about that on my way home, south on I-45 toward Houston, almost 6 months to the day from when Tiffany found Tad.  I don’t know, but I believe dogs draw from a deep well of forgiveness.  I like to think Tad’s moved on and doesn’t dwell on the hurt of past offenses the way we humans do.  There’s lots to learn from all this.  The thing is it’s hard to tell sometimes who’s doing the learning and who’s doing the teaching.

It’s a hot Fall day in southeast Texas and there are plump promising rain clouds on the horizon.  Tad’s improving, and it’s already better than a good day.  Time to turn up the music and sing.

In Tad We Trust

Michael Baugh CPDT-KA, CDBC

I get to see Tad again tomorrow, and the anticipation has had me thinking about the brilliant truth of teaching and learning.

Given the right set of circumstances, a learner will tend toward making the right decision.  Scientifically that means if we set up the environment correctly our student will succeed.  That includes both environmental cues and pleasant consequences for the learner.  So much for the nerdy part.  Here’s the softer part.  All of my students really are working toward success; it’s the natural tendency of progress.

A perfect learning relationship

There isn’t anything inside Tad that predestines him to behave poorly.  There’s no internal badness in dogs that we humans have to break or dominate.  Dogs, like all other learners are naturally (meaning it’s in their nature) built to discover the easiest right choices for behavior, and to act on them.  In fact, even “bad” behavior is at the time the perceived right choice for the dog.  Our job as teachers is simply to clear the path, make the choices we prefer more obvious, and reinforce those correct choices joyfully.  That’s teaching.

I always trust my client dogs to find and make the right choice.  If they don’t, I look at myself first to make adjustments.  I never look inside the dog for sinister intentions with flimsy labels like stubbornness or jealousy.  What can I change in this student’s environment to make it easier for him to make a correct behavior choice?  When he makes that correct choice, how can I tell him he got it right so that he makes that choice again in the future?  I joke that dog teaching isn’t a religion it’s a science.  Still, it takes a whole lot of faith to ask those questions, trust the dog, and trust the process.

I smile every time I remember that humans can be trusted too.  When we talk about a learner’s environment, we’re really talking about relationships.  A supportive, empathetic relationship between a teacher and a learner (and really we’re all co-learners) sets the client up to succeed, every time, without exception.  I nod respectfully to the late Carl Rogers who brought this knowledge to us.  Humans are naturally built (meaning it’s in their nature) to ascend to the highest level of success possible, given the right environment and relationships.  Abraham Maslow called that “self actualization,” and all of us are on the path.  My path as a teacher and a learner fills me with faith every day.  I trust the people I teach, and the dogs they teach in turn.  I learn from them too.  Certainly, it’s not always easy.  Tiffany will tell you that, as will Tad in his own way.  Still, we travel on together, clearing the path for our better selves, applying the science with abiding faith.