I’ve got a pet peeve involving the dog park: humping. My problem isn’t with the dogs that engage in the behavior (let’s call it "mounting" from now on to appease the censors); it’s with the owners’ reaction to it. Invariably, the owner of the mountee and/or mounter runs over in embarrassment, pulls the dogs apart, and spends a good part of their remaining time at the park yelling at the "offenders" to stop. Sounds like fun for everyone involved, eh?
My dog Apollo is both a humper and a humpee (sorry, mounter and mountee), and that is a good thing. Why? Because it indicates that his behavior among the other dogs is very normal. Therefore, I feel no need to intervene, which means I’ve been the recipient of numerous "will you do something about your dog" glares, which I generally ignore.
So what’s the deal with mounting? Like most behaviors, dogs do it for several different reasons. Yes, it can be sexual even in spayed and neutered pets, but this the exception rather than the rule. Another common explanation is that one dog mounts another to assert his or her dominance. That also can be true, but in these cases it is simply a form of communication between the dogs. As long as neither dog is upset by the interaction, why should we care if this is how they choose to figure out who is "top dog" in the ever changing pack structure at the park? Once the relationships are ironed out, everybody can play in accordance to the new canine rules.
Mounting behavior may also simply be a form of play. When you think about it, most play is some derivative of a normal adult behavior. Stalking, chasing, wrestling, gnawing on each other … that’s all predator-prey type stuff. If the dogs are running around having a good time and first one mounts the other and then vice-versa, there’s a good chance that they’re just messing with each other. You don’t have to worry that the generally more submissive dog is actually challenging the more dominant dog’s status and that sparks will fly.
Dogs may also mount each other because they are anxious or just fired up, both of which are common states of mind at the dog park. Mounting can be an outlet for a dog’s excitement if he or she is uncertain about the best way to join the fray. I’ve also seen it when the rough-housing starts to get out of hand. Think of it as a doggy-enforced time-out that lets everybody pause and take it down a notch.
My rule of thumb is that if the dogs involved seem relaxed and happy with whatever behavior they’re engaged in and it doesn’t pose a risk of injury, let 'em play. Isn’t the dog park a place where dogs should be allowed to be dogs for a while, instead of conforming to human rules of what constitutes acceptable public behavior?
Dr. Jennifer Coates