Tag Archives: status

Pleased to meet me, or is that just a bone in your pocket?

For human beings, few dog behaviors are as embarrassing as their dog inappropriately humping. Spencer does this often when he meets other males, which I’ve always understood it to be a dominance ritual. Most people tend to think it’s sexual (and we know at least one presumably homophobic dog owner who doesn’t seem to appreciate that his dog doesn’t “stand up for himself” when Spencer jumps on his back). However, an article that I’ve just stumbled on (thanks to Scientific America’s “28 Santa-Approved Dog Science Articles”) suggests some other reasons for this behavior that make more sense in the wider of context of who Spencer seems to be:

  1. As bizarre as it might seem to us, humping might be one way a dog says “Like me, like me”. Kind of like that drunk guy at the cocktail party who is just trying waaaaay too hard. This seems likely in some cases with Spencer, like when he jumps on poor Gus, a much smaller Bassett Hound who seems to adore Spencer since he has known him most of his life.
  2. Overexcitement. Spencer doesn’t really do this, although sometimes when he’s really happy, he gets a fleeting puppy “boner”. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)
  3. Humping is apparently a displacement behavior for conflicted feelings and anxiety. This sounds spot on for Spencer, whose reaction to a new dog can usually be summarized as freezing in fear until the dog passes and then running into the dog’s wake to soak up its odor (often accompanied by whining). He seems to want to be social, but to be terrified by the possible contact.
  4. Self-soothing. Self-explanatory. Not Spencer’s thing.
  5. Dominance. It may be a dominance ritual. but maybe we had that one wrong, like so many things we believed about canine dominance for decades.

Read the full article “Lessons from the Schoolyard: Why Do Dogs Hump?” on the Buzz, Hoot, Roar blog.

Spencer 1, Kristen 0

(Update February 2015: Since this article was written, we have learned that research has totally debunked the myth that dogs are somehow trying to gain status over humans.

First, dogs don’t have fixed hierarchies. They may scuffle for control over resources that they find valuable, but each dog values different things. 

Second, it’s nonsense that a dog feels the need to test you after you’ve tried to impose yourself on him. A more accurate reading of events in retrospect is that I had showed Spencer that he would be punished (in this case through choke chain leash corrections) when strangers came near. So his lunging at the man was a preemptive attempt to prevent the man from approaching.

Third, luring crows nearby and then leash-correcting the dog is cruel. You’re basically setting the dog up to fail and then imposing corporal punishment for the inevitable. It is much better to proactively teach the dog impulse control.)

One of our key objectives in training is to teach Spencer he should never take any initiatives of contact with third parties, whether positive initiatives (Hi Dog! I want to play!) or negative (I don’t like the looks of that man, I think I’ll lunge at him). He should also refer to us for direction. This is a gradual process, and one which sometimes involves some steps back as well as forward.

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