When a dog mounts guests, we are often deeply ashamed of our dogs and may almost wish to hide under a table claiming that the dog is not ours. This is often because we associate dog mounting with what dogs do to give life to a litter of puppies, but in the dog world, the mounting behavior may have not much to do with sex. With most doggy behaviors, it helps to look at the context in which it occurs to understand what’s really happening.
Not a Matter of Dominance
In the past, every time a dog mounted anything, even an innocent stuffed animal, the dog was claimed to be "dominant."
"Mounting and humping are behaviors that trigger more mythical and pseudoscientific explanations than any other behaviors. Think about that for a minute and you’ll realize that it makes no sense," says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall in her book: "Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats."
Turns out, dogs are not on a quest for world domination as once it was thought. Dogs are not socialized wolves, and therefore, aren't constantly striving to obtain the position of "top dog" for the purpose of controlling every situation.
"Contrary to what traditional training ideologies and much modern media would have you believe, most canine behavior problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you" claims an article on world-known dog trainer Victoria Stillwell's website Positively.
Such misunderstanding derives from the old studies of captive wolves conducted by Robert Shenkel which have led to an erroneous understanding of the dynamics taking place in our modern domestic dogs and being applied in their interactions with us humans.
In reality, rather than vying for top dog position, when dogs develop an intra-species relationship with their human family members, and do the things they do, that are driven by a variety of motivations, which can include genetics, socialization, available resources, fear, conflicts, learning, behavioral pathology and disease, point out board-certified veterinary behaviorists Dr. Debra Horowitz and Gary Landsberg.
Often Not What it Looks Like
In most cases, dog owners are deeply embarrassed about their dogs mounting behavior because it looks "dirty." Let's face it: nobody wants that to happen when grandma or aunt Mary and her kids come over to visit.
Yet, interestingly, if you live in the United States, you'll notice that, in most cases, the dog doing the mounting is a neutered male dog or a spayed female.
Not to mention, the behavior of humping begins early in puppy hood, well before actual puberty (which in dogs starts when pups are around 5 to 8 months old).
This proves to us that mounting is more of a socially significant behavior, rather than a sexual one, points out Stanley Coren in the book: "How To Speak Dog, Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication."
So if Rover's mounting behavior can be relatively independent of reproduction and sexual intentions and if it' not carried out due to so called "dominance" why on earth is he mounting people, especially our guests? There are several reasons to consider.
"Mounting and humping are not about “dominance” and usually not about sex."Dr. Karen Overall, board-certified veterinary behaviorist
A Quest for Interaction
On many occasions, dogs who mount humans do so because they are happy and want people to interact with them, explains Karen Overall.
This type of humping may appear terrible from our perspective, but from a dog's standpoint, it's a pretty normal type of affiliative behavior and a good way to get attention.
Let's not forget about the learning component. Dogs tend to repeat behaviors that lead to a positive outcomes. If every time your dog humps a guest, you or your guest laugh, your dog will keep performing this behavior simply because humping feels good and it generates attention and interaction since one of you laughed.
Even if the interaction didn't lead to laughing, but rather scolding the dog, any attention is better than no attention at all, from a dog's perspective.
It's sort of like a child who starts whining and crying when mommy is on the phone ignoring him. When mom finally makes eye contact with the child, even if only to scold the child, the child may feel reassured by the attention and therefore will likely keep acting this way next time mommy is on the phone again. Social attention can be a very powerful reward, for both humans and canines.
A Matter of Excitement
No, not that type of excitement you're thinking about. We're talking here the type of excitement and over arousal of when you come home from work or when you have guests over and your dog is overly enthusiastic about it.
One moment he's sniffing your guest, the next he's jumping, and next thing you know, Rover starts licking his chops and humping your guest's leg.
On top of owners coming home from a long day at work and the appearance of a leash denoting the next walkie, guests coming over may be the next big thing.
A Matter of Anxiety
Not all dogs may be totally comfortable having guests over, and sometimes this may lead to some stress. Or perhaps, your dog may have already been exposed to some type of stress prior to your guest's arrival, and now it's time to wind down and release some of it with a little bit of humping activity.
A Displacement Behavior
On top of mounting guests as a way of interacting and garnering attention or demonstrating his excitement or anxiety, mounting can also be the manifestation of a displacement behavior.
Displacement behaviors in dogs are out-of-context behaviors that take place when dogs are faced with conflicts. For example, your dog may overly excited, and perhaps even a bit anxious about having a new guest over, so mounting may be his way of acting out so to relieve his excited energy or stress.
Basically, it boils down to this: when your dog is unsure on how to behave in a certain situation, or if he’s overly excited about the arrival of guests, mounting helps relieve his tension.
"Mounting could also be what ethologists call a displacement behavior, meaning that it’s a by-product of conflicted emotions. For some dogs, a new visitor to the house could elicit a mixture of excitement and stress that could make for a humping dog." ~Mark Bekoff, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed, The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs may mount guests for a variety of reasons. It goes without saying though that mounting is an impolite behavior and it's best to be discourage it. Tackling this behavior may though take a multi-faceted approach. Following are several tips to stop your dog from mounting your guests.
- Avoid physical corrections. It may be tempting to correct a dog's mounting behavior by rolling him over forcefully, shaking him by the jowls or scruff of the neck, or physically pulling him off, but these methods can backfire. These methods can increase arousal and may even trigger fear or defensive biting. It is best to work on behavior issues using methods devoid of fear and injury. "These forceful kinds of correctional behaviors encourage physical solutions for problems which are better solved using intellectual solutions. We should be smart enough to change their behavior in ways that can be mutually satisfying," point out Dr. Overall.
- Manage the situation when you can't train. Prevent your dog from rehearsing the problematic behavior by keeping him behind a baby gate or in a playpen or crate when guests are over If you want your dog to still feel part of the family, you can simply tether your dog in the same room so he can socialize too but without your guests being an easy target.
- To train your dog to stop mounting, you'll need to be patient. The longer your dog has exhibited mounting behaviors, the longer it will take to reduce it. If Rover has mounted people for more than a year, you won't have an overnight solution. Following are several options to stop the behavior.
- If your dog mount as a way to get attention, enlist the help of several friends. Instruct them to get up and walk away, the moment you or them notice that your dog is about to start mounting. This teaches your dog that his attention-seeking behavior doesn't yield any results.
- Remember: it is far easier interrupting the behavior before he gets to mount than once he has latched on to your guest's leg and is actively humping. So don’t wait for the hip action to begin, interrupt him before he gets to grab your leg with his front legs.
- Use caution: some dogs may react aggressively when they are mounting and you try to remove them from a guest's leg or other body part. If your dog ever reacts this way, enlist the help of a dog behavior professional and in the meanwhile, keep him safely crated or in another room when guests are over.
- Many times though dogs learn best if we can train them to perform an alternate behavior that is far more rewarding to engage in compared to the mounting. This training takes time, so ideally, prevent rehearsal of the problem behavior in the meanwhile through management while you work in the background on the desirable behavior you’d like your dog to perform when guests come over.
- We can therefore train our dog to interact with guests in better ways. For instance, we can train them to target the guest's hands with his nose in exchange for a tossed treat or we can train our dogs to go to their mats and reward them with a long-lasting chew.
- Finally, consider the underlying emotions. If your dog is too excited, your dog may benefit from learning better impulse control when around your guests. Here are 10 impulses control exercises for dogs.
- If your dog is anxious, take steps to reduce his anxiety. Ask your guests to talk in a calm tone of voice and use subtle movements. Create positive associations with having guests in your home. Reduce the number of stressors from your dog's environment.
- The above tips are based on dealing with a dog who is friendly and safe and not a bite risk. If you are unsure or have a new dog, best to play it safe and consult with a dog behavior professional.