Help – my dog’s licking habit is out of control!

We were approached with an unusual question this week.

“My dog licks everything and I don’t know how to stop her! Why is this happening? What can I do?”

Dog Licking

As with many things in the world of dogs, there’s no clear-cut answer to this question.  A quick lick of a human face is usually just a canine ‘hello’ – but some dogs’ licking doesn’t stop there. This concerned dog owner described her Chihuahua as constantly licking the floor, the furniture, the family and itself – and it was becoming a problem. Dogs may lick the site of an injury or a skin allergy but if that’s not the cause then what is?

Treating this behaviour first needs some analysis of what is really causing it.  We recommended this dog owner look at in an analytical way. Here are some questions she could ask herself…

- Is the problem medical? If your dog has been acting this way for a long time or since a she was a puppy, chances are that she hasn’t developed a medical problem that could be the cause. On the other hand if this is a new habit or it has developed quickly there could be a medical explanation. Perhaps the dog is feeling nauseous and is licking for comfort. Get her checked out by a vet to be sure. A neurological disorder is harder to diagnose. Try interrupting your dog when she is licking. If no amount of calling, playing or distracting can make her pause in her licking task – speak to a vet.

- Does the dog suffer with anxiety? There are many reasons why a dog may be anxious. Perhaps she’s not coping well with a house move or a new pet in the home. Maybe a bad experience has made her wary of everything that moves. One thing that may help is increased exercise – which will help the dog take her mind off it’s worries. A good way to give her a confidence boost is with obedience training at home. The predictability of structured training (consistent command – response – reward methods) can be soothing to a dog with a nervous disposition. Imagine hearing a story and knowing that it ends well every time. Feeling more relaxed already?

- Are you encouraging this habit? Think carefully… how do people in your home react when they see your dog licking things she shouldn’t. Do they comfort her? Do they shout at her? There’s a chance this is attention seeking behaviour. If you cuddle your pup whenever you see it, you could be inadvertently encouraging the licking. It’s rare but still possible that even angry shouting is still worthwhile attention to some dogs. Try recording the dog when she’s alone to see if it continues when you’re not there to observe it. Perhaps you simply need to completely ignore the behaviour and allow this association to fade.

- Is this a canine variety of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Again see if you can interrupt her with distractions. If you can, think about ways to teach her new behaviours to practice instead of the licking. Wait for the signs she’s getting ready for a good lick and then show the dog something different she can do instead . Perhaps encourage some playtime by throwing a toy or take an opportunity to spend five minutes on training - ask for a basic command or teach her a new trick. Call in a trainer to help you create the right environment for your dog's training. Soon enough she’ll forget about the old habits and create some new ones. 

Emma Greenwood-Petrie is a partner and trainer at Dog Tags Training