What your dog sees as humpworthy may include other dogs (male and female), your child, your ottoman, your favorite pillow, your house guest, a stuffed animal, your leg, or anything else he — or even she — can latch on to.
It’s one of those canine behaviors we humans find less than endearing, downright embarassing and highly confusing; and, as a result, our reaction is usually to bow our heads in shame, holler at the offending dog, or pretend it’s not happening.
So it’s good to see somebody boldy jumping on the subject — and getting across the point, among others, that the behavior is totally normal.
Julie Hecht, who manages Alexandra Horowitz’s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in New York City, explores the ambiguous and often avoided topic of non-reproductive humping in the latest issue of The Bark magazine.
“From tail wagging to barking, dog behavior is riddled with nuance. A wagging tail might convey ‘I’m quite scared’ or ‘This is the best day ever!’ Like tail wagging, mounting is far more complex than it may appear, and there is not one simple explanation. But there are some likely candidates.”
Hecht holds a master’s degree in applied animal behavior and welfare from the University of Edinburgh, and she’s an adjunct professor at Canisius College. More important than any of that, she’s not afraid to tackle a subject that offends the more prim and proper among us.
So is humping sexual, or part of an instinctual urge — “must … reproduce … now” — to create offspring? Is it a display of aggression, an assertion of dominance, or just a way to relieve some pent up energy? Clearly, it’s not always and entirely motivated by sexual arousal, Hecht notes, for pillows aren’t usually that arousing.
For nearly as long as ethologists have studied dogs, they have taken note of dogs’ tendency to hump outside of reproductive contexts, she writes.
University of Colorado ethologist Marc Bekoff observed way back in the 1970s that young canids — pairs of three- to seven-week-old wolves, coyotes and dogs — were prone to pelvic thrusting, and that females also engaged in some of that behavior.
“It’s what dogs do. It’s a completely normal behavior,” explains Carolyn Walsh, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who studies the nuances of dog behavior in dog parks. “Both males and females mount, regardless of whether [they are] sexually intact or not.”
It can come from a surge of emotion, anxiety or arousal, Walsh explains.
“Dog parks can be quite stimulating, and for those who are highly aroused physiologically, mounting behavior could easily come out. There can be such a buildup of social motivation and the desire to affiliate that some of that energy spills over into the sexual motivation system. You see sexual behavior coming out, but it’s mostly out of context.”
Hecht also interviewed Peter Borchelt, a certified applied animal behaviorist in New York City, who pointed out, “There are only so many behaviors a dog has access to, and dogs do what is part of their species-typical behavior. It is something they know how to do.”
Many dog owners equate humping to dominance and control, but it can also be a friendly and less than lecherous attempt to get another dog to play. It may be a cry for attention, a way for dogs to gauge the bond they have with other dogs, or to test just how much a play partner is willing to tolerate.
“This is the idea that dogs perform potentially annoying behaviors like mounting to test the strength of the recipient’s investment in the relationship,” said Becky Trisko, a behaviorist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., who has studied dog-dog interactions in the dog daycare setting.
“It’s like saying, ‘How much will you put up with?’ ‘How much do you really like me?’”
Despite all the dirty connotations we humans attach to pelvic thrusting, with dogs the behavior seems — while stemming from various emotions — to be more of a celebration of life than anything else. Cooped up in houses all day, a trip to the dog park, or even just seeing the leash come out, can get dogs excited to the point that something else comes out. Humping, or even an erection, it seems to me, isn’t all about sex when it comes to dogs — that’s just how we’re prone to interpreting it.
We humans equate it with sexual lust, but, with dogs, humping might just be a natural way to celebrate, like the high-fiving or chest-bumping of frat boys, or that “woo-hoo” noise girls make when they get together.
Looking at it through a less tainted lens, one could even make the argument that the behavior — humping, not woo-hooing — is more charming than it is revolting.
For the dog, joy is joy; and embarassing as it might be for us to see any overlap between sexual pleasure and just plain happiness, dogs don’t seem to get all bogged down in what might be the appropriate expression of their various happy and excited emotions.
Is that dirty? Or is there a certain purity there? Do dogs have their emotions confused? Or do they have it right?
None of this is to say you should try it at home, at the corner bar, or anywhere else. Civilized society dictates we don’t engage in that behavior. It’s only to say we shouldn’t get too bent out of shape when our dogs hump.
Rather than punishing a dog for exhibiting glee, it makes more sense to gently redirect the behavior. Watch closely at the dog park and you’ll see that many dogs — the humpees, as opposed to the humpers – do that themselves, with a growl or snarl.
My dog Ace does not tolerate it — whether it’s him being humped, or another dog. He feels the need to break it up, and, should he see one dog mounting another, he will generally rush over and do so.
I’m not sure where that behavior comes from.
Maybe he has become too human.
(Painting by Lachlan Blair, from his father Stuart Blair’s blog)
Posted by jwoestendiek July 6th, 2012 under Muttsblog.
Tags: aggression, animals, arousal, barnard college, behavior, behaviorist, boys, canines, carolyn walsh, causes, chest bump, children, civilized, control, cushions, dog, dog cognition lab, dog park, dogs, dominance, embarassing, embarassment, ethologist, excitement, female, girls, glee, happiness, high five, humans, hump, humped, humping, humps, humpworthy, instinct, interpretations, julie hecht, legs, male, marc bekoff, mounting, people, peter borchelt, pets, pillows, play, reasons, reproductive, sexual, socializing, society, the bark, urge, woo hoo
Remember Denver, the guilty, oh-so-guilty, looking yellow lab that was captured on video by her owner while she was being interrogated in the case of the missing cat treats?
We suggested — partly in jest — that she might be innocent, that appearances can be deceiving, not to mention misinterpreted, and that, just maybe, the cat did it.
Now — with the video having gone viral, with dog and owner having appeared on the ABC’s Good Morning America, with a line of “guilty dog” merchandise having been spawned — there’s more reason to believe that Denver might have been wrongly convicted. How guilty one looks and how guilty one is are two different things — especially when it comes to dogs.
Guilt, research shows, may be just another human emotion that dog owners anthropomorphically ascribe to dogs.
And all those behaviors Denver exhibited – avoiding eye contact, lying down, rolling into a submissive position, dropping the tail, holding down the ears or head, raising a paw – are more likely triggered by the owner’s semi-scolding tones than any feelings of “remorse.”
This reminder/revelation comes from someone who knows, who did her master’s dissertation on this very topic, and who produces one of my new favorite blogs, Dog Spies.
Julie Hecht is a New York-based behavioral researcher who has worked with Patricia McConnell and Alexandra Horowitz. She wrote her dissertation at the University of Edinburg on “Anthropomorphism and ‘guilty’ behavior in the dog,” and did her research with the Family Dog Project in Budapest, Hungary. She recently started Dog Spies, which focuses on the science behind dog behaviors and the dog-human relationship, and she divides her time between research, lecturing, blogging and working with individual pet owners.
As was my goal (plug alert) in my recently published book, “DOG, INC: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend,” she attempts to take the boring out of science, thereby making it interesting and understandable. “Scientific journals should be titled, ‘Lots of great information within, a tad boring to read!’ Dog Spies translates that information and shares it with you,” reads the introduction to her blog.
Judging from her “guilty dog” blog entry — and you know its trustworthy, because it has footnotes – Denver’s appearance, with her owners, on the ABC morning show raised her hackles a bit.
“According to the dictionary, ‘news’ is ‘information about recent events or happenings.’ I did not see any news during that morning show. Instead, I saw a bunch of morning personalities throwing out assumptions and offering the audience pleasing banter and humorous judgments about dogs. They provide no real information or ‘news’ about what happened to the cat treats.”
Here Hecht has hit on one of my pet peeves — pun definitely not intended. Rather than shedding some light, doing some research, and furthering our understanding of canines, the ABC segment — like so much of what the media, blogs included, feed us about dogs — was the kind of cutesy, substance-free fluff that reinforces misinformation and misunderstanding.
Like most everyone else, the smiling morning show hosts concluded Denver must have eaten the cat treats. When shown the empty bag and asked, “Did you do this?” Denver displays squinting eyes, averts her head and makes a highly laughable presentation of her teeth.
Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.
Or maybe not.
Hecht cites a 2008 research paper that says 74 percent of dog owners attribute guilt to dogs, and believe dogs know when they have done something owners disapprove of. But scientific research shows that it’s not knowledge of a misdeed, or remorse, that leads to the guilty look, but an owner’s scolding. (See the New York Times piece, “It’s an Owner’s Scolding That Makes a ‘Guilty’ Dog.”)
Or, see this — a video Hecht made that shows a dog named Gidget being falsely accused:
As Alexandra Horowitz, author of “Inside of a Dog,” once put it: “We’ve trained them that when they see us angry, they give us that guilty look. I’m not saying they don’t feel guilt … I can’t test that yet. But we generate the context that prompts them to produce this look.
Why then, in the guilty dog video gone viral, does Denver show these behaviors when the other, presumed innocent family dog, Masey, does not?
“Research finds that even post-transgression, not all dogs show the ‘guilty look’ in the presence of a non-scolding owner,” Hecht says. And, transgressions aside, it might be the simple fact that Denver is a more expressively submissive dog, according to Hecht, who says part two of her entry on the “guilty dog look” will be appearing soon on her blog.
Why do dogs show what appears to be a guilty look more so than do their progenitors, wolves?
“Dogs have, for the most part, incredibly malleable and expressive faces (much more so than, say, cats) and from this, we can often see the subtleties of their eyebrows going down or up or their wide forward-facing eyes, becoming wider. All of these things could impact how humans attribute mental states to dogs,” Hecht told me.
My theory is there’s more at play — though maybe I’m giving dogs more intellectual credit than they deserve. I think mastering the guilty look is another way dogs have evolved since their domestication, and to cope with their domestication — part of their ongoing adaption to pethood. By showing submission, some of them may have have figured out, they can keep the peace, and maybe even get a belly rub or a Milkbone.
To me, the even more interesting question, when it comes to “the guilty look,” is whether, even before the scolding comes, dogs can sense it’s about to. Before a word comes out of the owner’s mouth, before an angry stance is even taken, can dogs sense that some displeasure is churning within us?
I, without any research or footnotes to back me, believe so. My scientific explanation for this: It’s magic.
Dogs are figuring us out. Which, until recent years, is maybe more than they could say about us. We’ve always been more concerned with their brawn than their brain, more concerned with their beauty than their behavior. It’s man’s hand that has led to the vast diversity of shapes and sizes in dogs. And while breeders have begun to put a higher priority on temperament, it can still be argued that appearance is placed above all else.
Could it be, in their way – without the aid of microscopes, opposable thumbs or access to our pedigrees – dogs are looking more deeply into us than we are into them? Could it be, during their time in domestication, dogs, as a species, have amassed a wealth of knowledge on how to best get along with humans, and have become even better at doing so than humans?
I think there’s more at work than breeding and genetics and instinct when it comes to dog behavior. An ongoing and not fully understood evolution is at play in the dog-human relationship. And that is the reason – all those unanswered questions about behavior, coupled with those we wrongly assume we know the answers to – why dog blogs of substance, like Hecht’s, are important.
At the same time, though, I rue the day when our understanding of dog behavior is complete — when we can explain every act of dog as stemming from some lingering instinct, or adaptation to their domestication. For then the magic will be gone.
I want all three — my science, my magic and my dog. Does that make me greedy?
Posted by jwoestendiek April 27th, 2011 under Muttsblog.
Tags: abc, adaptation, alexandra horowitz, animals, anthropomorphism, appearances, behavior, cat treats, cognition, coverage, denver, dog, dog inc., dog spies, dog-human, dogs, dogs guilty look, domestication, emotions, feelings, good morning america, guilt, guilty, guilty look, humans, inside of a dog, instinct, julie hecht, looks, media, morning show, news, patricia mcconnell, pets, relationship, remorse, scolding, submission, submissive, video, viral
Posted by jwoestendiek May 10th, 2009 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: animals, assignment america, baboon, burlington, cats, cbs, dog, dog nurses kittens, fawn, goat, horse, humane society, instinct, interspecies, iowa, kittens, labrador, lily, loeopard, mix, motherhood, mothers, mothers day, news, nursing, ohmidog!, pregnant, shelter, steve hartmann, video