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No, When Male Dogs Mount Other Males, It Doesn't Mean They're Gay

Despite appearances, mounting behavior is not a sign of homosexuality.

Key points

  • A recent news report indicated that a family gave up a dog because they felt it demonstrated homosexuality by "mounting" another male dog.
  • Mounting behavior is used by one dog to express power and dominance over another dog, regardless of sex.
  • Neutering is not an effective control for mounting behavior.
Eddy Van 3000/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Doggy style at the Gay Pride Brussels
Source: Eddy Van 3000/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

It is not the case that everything we see is about sex and gender roles. When it comes to what appears to be sexual behavior, it is clear that too much anthropomorphism combined with limited knowledge of dog behavior can lead to bad outcomes for family pets. According to a report by TV WCCB in Charlotte, North Carolina, the owners of a dog gave him up to a shelter because they thought that he was "gay." The dog, Fezco, is a mixed breed, about 4-to-5 years old, weighing around 50 pounds, and by all reports, he is friendly and sociable. The Stanly County Animal Shelter reported that the dog's owners surrendered him to the shelter claiming that he displayed his homosexuality by "humping" another male dog.

The Behavior in Question

Mounting behavior (colloquially referred to as "humping") is when a dog clasps the hips of another dog and stands on two legs while thrusting his hips. Although this kind of activity is part of normal sexual behavior in dogs, in the most common interactions among canines such behavior has nothing to do with sex, but a lot to do with social dominance.

The fact that mounting behavior can be relatively independent of sexual intentions can be seen by watching very young puppies. Well before they have reached puberty (which comes at about 6-to-8 months of age) they are already showing exactly this kind of activity. Mounting in puppies appears shortly after they begin walking and is first seen when they start playing with each other. It is a socially significant behavior, but not a sexual one. For young puppies, mounting is one of the earliest opportunities for learning about their physical abilities and their social potential. It basically represents an expression of relative dominance over another dog. The stronger, more authoritative puppy will mount its more submissive brothers and sisters simply to demonstrate leadership and dominance. These behaviors will then carry on into adulthood, with the significance mostly being an expression of power and control.

It's Not Really About Sex

Mounting behavior is used as a signal for relative status and power. Since mounting can be unrelated to reproduction, its social significance applies to both males and females. Because it is a display which serves to challenge or to assert social control by one dog over another, this behavior can occur between individuals of the same or the opposite sex. A male mounting another male is thus not displaying homosexual tendencies, but is simply saying "I'm the boss around here." Females may use mounting as a statement of social position as well: Females can be dominant over other females and even over male dogs, and display this in the same way: by assuming a mounting position. This is not an issue of sexual confusion since the dynamic structure of dog society is not a question of gender alone. Status in the canine world depends more upon size and physical ability, combined with certain characteristics associated with temperament, motivation, and drive.

Mounting behavior may occur when a dog wishes to express the fact that it feels it has control over another dog. That means you may see males on males, females on females, males on females, or vice versa. None of these behaviors represent any form of sexual advance or invitation. Instead, they should be viewed as a very clear signal of serious social ambition by the mounting dog. The dominant or "top dog" is literally the dog that is on top.

Will Neutering Help?

Since mounting behavior is most commonly an attempt to claim a higher social status than that of another animal, it should not be surprising to learn that the belief that you can stop a dog from mounting by neutering him is just a myth. Neutering will eliminate certain sex-related hormones in the dog, such as testosterone in males; however, neutering will not change the dog's basic character and personality. That means that in a dominant, leadership-oriented dog, mounting behavior may still occur even after neutering. What the removal of the sex hormones may do is to reduce the intensity with which the dog will pursue his social ambitions. However, the older a dog is when he is finally neutered, the less his dominance traits will be curtailed, since previous exposure to testosterone has already shaped the development of his brain.

Are There Any Parallels in Human Behavior?

A number of scientists have, over the years, speculated that there may be a link between male sexual behavior and dominance in humans as well as dogs. Some of this speculation has been triggered by press coverage of prominent politicians caught engaging in embarrassing extramarital affairs. These scientists note that politicians are certainly socially dominant individuals and have openly pondered the possibility that leadership characteristics might be linked to a biological tendency toward increased sexual behavior in general. The more dominant the individual the more likely there will be promiscuity, whether socially accepted as in the case of cultures where men can have more than one wife, or not. In a typically scientific manner, some scientists have suggested that it might be possible to separate sexuality from dominance by using some highly specific drugs that can nullify the effect of certain hormones. In this way, it might be possible to create politicians with strong dominance and leadership traits, but no sexual interest in pornographic movie stars, political aides, or nightclub entertainers. Unfortunately, as one investigator noted to me, the research to confirm this hypothesis would require some politically successful volunteers willing to "take the cure," while, to the best of his knowledge, not one politician has yet heeded the call.

It is true that mounting behavior is not something that many people really find acceptable in their dog. However, when it comes to expressing social dominance, in comparison to dogs actually fighting with a full display of gnashing teeth and slashing attacks, mounting is really quite controlled and harmless. It is also important to remember that while the behavior looks like sex, it actually has nothing to do with sex.

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Coren, S. (2001). How to speak dog: Mastering the art of dog-human communication. New York: Fireside Books, Simon & Schuster (pp. i-xii, 1-274).

Downey, J. & Stanyer, J. (2013) Exposing Politicians’ Peccadilloes in Comparative Context: Explaining the Frequency of Political Sex Scandals in Eight Democracies Using Fuzzy Set Qualitative Comparative Analysis, Political Communication, 30:3, 495-509, DOI: 10.1080/10584609.2012.737434

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