Why Do Dogs Hump the Air?

Dogs hump the air often at the most inappropriate times, such as when grandma visits or when visiting the dog park during peak hours when lots of dogs and people are around, but what causes this peculiar behavior? Sure, it looks somewhat "dirty" often leading to embarrassment or funny remarks, but not always air humping is what it looks like. There can be behavior and medical etiologies (causes) to air humping behavior in dogs.

Humping Behaviors in Dogs 

Humping, also known as mounting, refers to the pelvic thrusting motions often observed in dogs in a variety of circumstances. The behavior is often perceived by the public as "taboo," mainly because the movement mimics what male dogs do with a female dog in heat, for the purpose of having puppies :)

 However, what makes this behavior interesting, is the fact that spayed female dogs, male neutered dogs and even young puppies are often seen doing the humping, and not only, the humping motions rather than being directed towards a female dog in heat can be directed towards other dogs (regardless of gender), people legs', objects (pillows, stuffed animals) and sometimes even the air!

As much as humans are embarrassed by this behavior, humping is a totally natural behavior in dogs. Many dog owners are often surprised to learn that the first humping episodes happen quite early in puppies, at an age we would expect puppies to play with butterflies and chase toilet paper rolls down a flight of stairs. 

Just as it happens with regular humping, air humping in dogs may take place for a variety of underlying causes.

The "Real Thing"

OK, OK, sometimes, air humping is what it really looks like: it takes place when an intact male dog becomes sexually frustrated, and just needs to do his "thing."

If there are any female dogs in heat nearby, intact male dogs will likely get frustrated and may start humping anything in sight. This may include humping other dogs, stuffed animals, owner's legs and even humping the "air."

To many dog owner's dismay, neutered dogs may hump for pleasure too. When a male dog in neutered, his testicles are removed. While it's true that with the testicles removed, the dog's main hormone-producing cells and sperm-producing cells are gone, neutered dogs still retain their adrenal glands which also secrete sex hormones. 

Neutered dogs can therefore still achieve an erection and may spend some special "teddy-bear time" with their favorite stuffed animals and they can also "mate" with a female dog, but without the worry of impregnating her, points out veterinarian Dr. Gary.  

However, keep in mind that, in newly neutered dogs, it can take up to a month for them to no longer be able to sire puppies as they can store sperm for up to that time. Also, sexually transmitted diseases such as brucellosis can be transmitted.

A Matter of Excitement

No, this is not the "excitement" you may be thinking of, considering the above paragraphs. In this case, we're talking about a different form, because physiological excitement can take different forms and doesn't have to always be sexual. 

You may therefore see Rover or Princess air humping from happy excitement in a variety of contexts such as when a favorite person is invited into the home, when they receive a new toy or when they are super happy to play with another doggy friend. 

A Displacement Behavior 

A displacement behavior in dogs is one that occurs seemingly "out of context" in certain circumstances such as when dogs are anxious or faced with internal emotional conflicts.  Humping and air humping may therefore occur as an outlet, a way to relieve tensions,

This form of anxiety relief is not uncommon, but it helps to pay attention when it occurs so that you can take some steps to help your dog better cope with those stimuli or situations that may be making his life a little difficult. 

An Attention-Seeking Behavior 

Some dogs are super eager to receive attention, especially when they are left home most of the day and have high expectations for your return. Imagine their feelings when, upon coming home, you give them little attention and plop yourself on the couch ready to binge-watch your favorite shows. 

Eager to grab your attention, Rover may therefore get a bit creative to have you look at him, talk to him or touch him. So he may start to chase his tail a bit or may bark, but this doesn't get any reaction from you. After a bit though, he starts air humping and Bingo! You eyes are on him as you laugh and remark: "Sir-Hump-a Lot,  now stop that, you naughty dog!"

Soon, the behavior puts roots because Rover has learned it gets your attention. The air-humping behaviors therefore strengthen and repeat simply because it's reinforced from your attention.

A Matter of Boredom

Some dogs air hump simply because they have nothing better to do. After all, if we think about it, many dog breeds were selectively bred to do something. Retrievers were carrying downed birds, pointers were pointing upon sighting a bird, hounds were tracking the scent of hares and many small dogs were warming up the laps of aristocratic ladies (call that a job!)

In any case, let's face it: life can feel rather boring today for our dogs if we fail to provide them with enough exercise and mental stimulation, and bored dogs tend to often engage in undesirable doggy behaviors that we may find annoying such as barking, digging and humping!

A Compulsive Behavior 

Sometimes, dog behaviors may turn into ingrained habits, which left untreated, further morph into compulsive behaviors. This is when the behavior starts getting out of hand, so much so, that your dog starts humping so much that you no longer see him engage much in other activities. 

Something Medically Wrong 

Dogs who air hump can also do so because of an underlying medical condition. Allergies, for example, are known to make dogs itch like crazy. These allergies can often be attributed to certain ingredients in foods or they may originate from contact to certain chemicals or allergens. 

Local irritation may also take place from other skin conditions such as skin fold dermatitis or bug bites or scrapes to the skin. In this case, air humping therefore takes place in an effort to relieve any itchiness or discomfort. 

Urinary tract infections, bladder stones, problems with the dog's anal glands or prostate gland may also be a culprit. Sometimes, in male dogs, an irritation or inflammation of the sheath can be a trigger or debris gets caught in the sheath.

In some cases, what may look like an episode of air humping may actually be a seizure. We often imagine seizures as full body spasms, but sometimes, depending on where in the brain the electrical misfire happens, a partial seizure may occur affecting only a body part. Another possibility is a pinched nerve in the dog's spine. 

In male and female dogs, air humping often accompanied or not by scooting and excessive licking of private areas is therefore something that requires some investigation to find the underlying cause. 

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs may air-hump for a variety of reasons. Whatever the reason, you may be wondering what you can do to reduce this behavior.  Here are a few tips based on possible underlying causes: 

  • If you suspect a medical condition and the air humping is a new behavior, have you dog see the vet for proper diagnosis and treatment. Dogs with allergies may benefit from food trials, antihistamines and management depending on what they are allergic to. Infections may require a course of antibiotics. 
  • If your intact male dog is air humping out of sexual frustration and is not being used to stud, neutering can help reduce this behavior. According to a study, neutering may reduce mounting behavior by 50 percent in almost 70 percent of dogs. Talk to your veterinarian. 
  • For attention-seeking humping, it may help to ignore the behavior when it happens. Don't talk to your dog, don't look at him, don't touch him. Give him attention only when he engages in a behavior you like. 
  • For boredom, make sure to provide ample of opportunities for exercise, training, socialization and mental stimulation. 
  • For anxiety, find out what triggers this behavior and evaluate the cumulative effect stress may have on your dog's life. Plan on reducing stress and systemically work on triggers with the help of a behavior professional. 
  • Generally, occasional air humping is nothing to worry about. If it embarrasses you when your does that in public, you can always redirect the behavior by giving your dog something else to do (play with a toy, enjoy a stuffed Kong, go on treasure hunt of tossed kibble). Preferably catch him before he has the chance of engaging in the behavior.  
  • For compulsive air humping in dogs, behavior modification along with behavioral modification medication may be needed.

References:

Effects of castration on problem behaviors in male dogs with reference to age and duration of behavior. Neilson JC, Eckstein RA, Hart BL. JAVMA 211:180-182, 1997.

 

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