Sexual Behaviour in the Dog: How to Differentiate Normal and Abnormal Behaviour?
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2007
Patrick Pageat, DVM, MSc, PhD, ECVBM-CA
Phérosynthèse Research Centre
Le Rieu Neuf, France

Pet owners are usually extremely concerned about any kind of sexual or so-called behaviours that they observe in their pets. Asexuality is the reference status for an animal that is supposed to be a kind of living toy and the vet will be immediately called in case of anything that could look like sexual behaviour. This must always be approached delicately, because of the many interpretations that are made by the owners. This is why, once more, clinicians should try to keep to the facts.

Objectives of the Investigation of Sexual Behaviour

 Choice of partner

 Social control


 Self-centered conduct

Their attention should be drawn essentially to the criteria for choosing a sexual partner, and especially by the evocation intensity of a con-specific partner of the opposite sex, during a receptive period. With males, the absence of reactions associated with the perception of a bitch in oestrus, outside the presence of a dominant (human or dog) is a sign of an imprint bonding disorder. If it is possible to find a species of animal that is able to trigger sexual behaviour, the conclusion will then be of a hetero-specific imprinting. If no trigger exists, we then have a precocious detachment depression. On the other hand, with females only the systematic refusal to be covered by any male, could suggest a possible disorder.

Choice of the Partner

 Only dogs (correct imprint)

 Dogs or humans (double imprinting)

 Only humans or another non-canine specie (hetero-specific imprinting)

Hetero-specific imprinting will be accompanied by courting behaviour in the presence of a male from the imprinting species. Precocious detachment depressions are, as they are with males, characterised by the absence of sexual behaviour.

Social Control

 Inhibition in the presence of the same-gender owner (subordinate dog)

 Exacerbation in the presence of the same-gender owner (sociopathy)

Among the anomalies in the choice of the partner, homosexuality is often identified by the owners and some authors have also mentioned it. However, we should remind ourselves that riding and the adoption of a posture to accept mating both constitute social rituals. The riding of lower ranking individuals is a normal behaviour for dominants of both sexes. Even if there is a mimicking of covering, there is never any insemination with the penis. Similarly, the posture accepting covering is a commonplace appeasement ritual with subordinate individuals and more specifically with young males.

Riding or Covering

 Make the distinction between hierarchical riding and covering

 In the case of covering, there is:

 Complete erection

 Opposite sex partner

 Courting phase (sniffing, licking)


In addition, females at the end of the pro-oestrus and during the oestral period very frequently ride with other females including females from their own circle. This behaviour has no pathological significance. However, females whose behaviour is not very inhibited tend to perceive themselves as being a dominant.

Self-centered Sexual Behaviours (Masturbation, Self-fellatio)

 In the presence of other kinds of sexual behaviour (normal situation)

 It is the only type of sexual conduct (lack of attachment)

Masturbation is often described as a behavioural anomaly; this is probably analogous to what used to be said about men. However, it is not a pathological behaviour. This sexual behaviour is commonplace with subjects from both sexes. Only animals for which such behaviour constitutes the only sexual practise can it be considered as pathological. Subjects afflicted with detachment depressions, stage 3 deprivation syndromes, are generally in this category.


 Dogs displaying excitation phase followed by a period of refraction (normal)

 Chain of multiple excitatory phases (hypersexuality; hypersensitivity- hyperactivity syndrome)

The most common sexual diagnosis of abnormal sexual behaviour is related to hetero-specific imprints.

Clinical Description

These are animals whose disorders only appear after puberty, from the absence of courting behaviour and attempts to mate in the presence of a receptive fellow creature of the opposite sex, to the production of typical sexual acts in the presence of subjects of the opposite sex of a different species.

Secondly, other behavioural modifications may appear later and be especially characterised by an appearance of the symptoms of sociopathy. The clinical picture is frequently complicated by the existence of a hyper-attachment.

Aetiology and Pathogenesis

These are disorders which result from an exclusive imprint to a different species. In every case, the pup came into contact with its "adoptive species" before the age of 3 weeks and was never in contact with its fellow creatures, before the age of 4 to 6 months. We have seen that the period which extends from the 3rd week to the end of the 3rd month is considered to be the imprint period. Pups withdrawn from contact with its own species thus imprint the species of their "substitute mother". Usually, this is a human being, but we have observed cases of imprint with felines, a ewe, and a goat. When the animal has reached sexual maturity, it shows courting behaviours and tries to mate with individuals from the species with which it was imprinted.


No epidemiologically interesting element was obtained from the files we have (87 cases). The only important factor seems to be the age of acquisition of the pup.


This is especially well-known for dogs which are imprinted to the human species, since the sexual behaviour of the dog then becomes a reason for consultation because of the disturbance and sometimes the risk it creates.

When the family refuses to consider the sexual advances of the dog as abnormal (this is often the case when there is a transposition of some psycho-analytic concepts to the animal thus taking into account the need to let "the libido of the dog be expressed"), a situation is created in which the appearance of the behaviour of a dominant male is helped. The dog may then try and monopolise all the elements with a hierarchical value, which leads to the development of a sociopathy.

Obviously, the use of these dogs and bitches for reproduction is impossible without resorting to artificial insemination. If this does not seem to be a problem for males, it is quite different for females.

Indeed, females seem more likely to run the risk of not developing their maternal skills normally.

They often give birth in a state of marked stress, do not get attached to the pups and they leave them uncared-for or attack if they are forced to feed them.


This is simple and relies on the following symptoms:

 An absence of sexual behaviour in the presence of a receptive con-specifics partner (in males, pheromones still trigger a state of excitement).

 Sexual behaviour triggered by a hetero-specific partner usually of the opposite sex belonging to the species with which the dog lived during the imprint period.

We may sometimes find the symptoms of a sociopathy associated with the specific symptoms; a sociopathy with hetero-specific imprint is then diagnosed.

Similarly, in the case where a state of hyper-attachment exists and is the source of a separation anxiety, a diagnosis of separation anxiety with hetero-specific imprinting is proposed.

Differential Diagnosis

It should be distinguished between the sociopathies, the anthropophilia of dogs living with a zoophilic partner and the normal sexual inhibition of subordinate individuals.

 In the sociopathies, we may find real sexual manifestations and sitting astride connected with dominance which may confuse and lead to a worse prognosis (with the hetero-specific imprint complicating the situation, the situation is often barely manageable). The distinguishing criterion in sociopathies is based on the existence of normal sexuality triggered by con-specific partners.

 In the very particular and delicate case of anthropophilia with dogs living with a zoophilic partner, the dog, if it seeks sexual relations with the human being, still displays a normal sexuality when in the presence of receptive fellow dogs. The admission to zoophilic practises by the owner simplifies the work of clinicians. It must be noted that this situation, which generally concerns male dogs, tends to increase the sexual fervour of the animal which also displays a courting behaviour even in the presence of a non-receptive bitch (outside oestrus).

 We have seen that subordinate individuals display a normal sexual inhibition in the presence of a dominant subject of the same sex. This phenomenon concerns both males and females, but confusion with a hetero-specific imprint is only possible with males. Indeed, even a subordinate individual, in the presence of a female in oestrus, displays a phase of excitement which is followed by a series of appeasement signals towards the dominant present. As a result, we may receive for consultation dogs which, when introduced to a female for covering, in the presence of their owner do not cover the bitch but turn to the owner, moaning, rubbing their neck on the owner's legs and wagging their tail, ears bent back on the neck. This is a normal sequence and the only way to allow covering consists of putting the dogs into contact, outside the presence of the owners.


This is very bleak. We have only, in exceptional circumstances been able to redirect the specific identification and thus the choice of the sexual partner. Only the animals in which, it is feared that imprinting disorders might occur, and for which immersion in a pack is set up, may normal sexual behaviour be restored. It is important to recognise these factors in order to act very early on and especially to warn the owners who might want their animal for breeding purposes.


Currently, this is almost impossible. It is however possible to improve the comfort of the family by avoiding the development of disturbing sexual behaviours in subjects imprinted to the human species and in so doing, prevent the appearance of a sociopathy.

 When the developmental conditions of the male or female pup, help us to predict the appearance of such disorders, early castration may avoid the occurrence of sexual acts. Later, castration only provides a decrease in the frequency of sexual manifestations.

 Chemotherapy is very disappointing, apart from cyproterone acetate (Androcur®, 3 to 5 mg / kg), in males, few preparations help at all.

As a therapy, directed social regression is particularly recommended. By placing the dog or the bitch in a subordinate position, the expression of its sexuality is also inhibited, which suppresses disturbing sexual behaviours.

Conversely, when the result sought is the appearance of an intra-specific sexuality, immersion for at least 15 days with conspecifics of both sexes is necessary. As we have highlighted regarding the prognosis, only very young subjects or those in puberty are likely to respond positively to this therapy.

Speaker Information
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Patrick Pageat, DVM, MSc, PhD, ECVBM-CA
Pherosynthese Research Centre/University of Torino

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