Dogs lick things. They lick themselves, they lick each other, they lick their toys, and they lick us.
If you find this gross or annoying, you’re not alone. Many people don’t enjoy being covered in dog slobber, but what can we do to teach our furry friends not to lick us?
Why Does My Dog Lick?
There are a few different reasons why a dog may lick, including:
1. To Ask For Food
Some dogs, especially puppies, lick their humans as an instinctive request for food. Pups normally lick their parents to ask for food or attention, so they do the same with you, their human caretakers. You may have seen how wolf puppies lick the faces of their parents to get them to regurgitate dinner – it’s a similar idea (but yes, kind of gross too). Dogs often will grow out of this habit, and the habit will be worst with the humans they’re closest to.
2. To Clean Themselves
All dogs also lick themselves to keep clean. In the vast majority of situations, this is a healthy and normal behavior. Many dogs will also lick themselves as a way to calm down and self-soothe. Pay attention to when your dog seems to drop everything to lick – is he actually relaxed and cleaning himself, or is he stressed and using licking as a way to calm himself?
Occasionally, dogs will compulsively lick themselves to the point of removing fur or creating sores. These dogs need to see a veterinary behaviorist. Read more about compulsive lickers below.
3. As a calming signal
Other dogs lick as a way to reduce social tension. This is called a calming signal, and it’s a good idea to learn about more calming signals that dogs use.
You can think of calming signals as a way to say “I’m sorry,” or “let’s all calm down here.”
These dogs may be nervous or trying to de-escalate a stressful situation. They’ll lick you after something went wrong in the home, after being yelled at, or sometimes for no apparent reason.
These dogs will often lick their own nose as well, and it may look like they’re trying to hold themselves back from licking you.
This tongue flick is a common signal that they want to diffuse tension or calm themselves. It’s also signal to others nearby that this dog does not want to start trouble. The spaniel to the right is demonstrating this “tongue flick” nicely.
Self-calming licking behavior is similar to when a human takes a deep breath and smiles – they are at once calming themselves and showing others that they are not a threat.
4. As a Compulsive behavior
Some dogs are compulsive lickers. These dogs are the ones that will sit and lick your jeans or forearms for as long as you allow them. They may also lick sofas, themselves, or just about anything else. These dogs may be stressed out or may have compulsive tendencies.
Think of them like humans who can’t stop cleaning their nails when they’re nervous. These dogs have taken what is a normal behavior and taken it to abnormal levels, and may need special help. Veterinarians are starting to classify this as canine compulsive disorder.
Understanding The Root Cause Of Your Dog’s Licking
Some dogs fit into more than one of these categories. Some don’t fit into any. My own foster dog, Sasha, just licked me when I returned from the gym. She wasn’t asking for food, trying to diffuse tension, or acting on nervous tendencies – I just tasted salty.
If you want to remedy your dog’s licking obsession, it’s essential that you first understand the root cause. If you’re annoyed or concerned with your dog’s licking habits but can’t identify why your dog licks, talk to a vet or trainer.
Even better, take a video of your dog licking and show it to your vet or pet behaviorist. Taking a video of the problem behavior is the best way to show professionals exactly why you’re concerned or frustrated with your dog’s behavior.
How To Stop A Dog From Licking?
Once you’ve identified what motivates your dog’s behavior, it is far easier to take next steps for correcting your dog’s licking issue. Keep in mind, though, that licking is natural and you likely will never get your dog to completely stop licking!
After identifying why your dog licks, it’s time to decide on a new goal behavior to substitute for your dog’s licking.
For example, I won’t reward Mabel, a compulsive licker that I dogsit frequently, for licking. I’ve also discovered that scolding her only increases her licking as she tries to appease me and diffuse tension. Instead, I now will only give her attention, acknowledgement, or food if she sits and makes eye contact – no licking allowed.
An example of this anti-lick training can be seen in this video from the BC SPCA!
Let’s explore some options for how to stop a dog from licking:
- For The Food-Begging Lickers: Many dogs will simply grow out of this habit. It is most commonly seen in puppies, but this behavior is closely linked to the nervous and compulsive lickers.
In order to reduce likelihood that this normal behavior becomes a compulsive habit, be sure to avoid rewarding the behavior with attention. Both positive and negative attention to licking should be avoided, but be sure to give your dog lots of love and treats as soon as he shows a behavior you do want.
- For The Cleaners: Again, this behavior is largely normal and should not be discouraged. If your dog does lick himself to the point of damaging his fur or skin, see a veterinary behaviorist immediately. Although be aware that what looks like cleaning in some cases may actually be compulsive.
- For The Nervous Lickers: I dog sit a nervous licker. Whenever I do anything that makes Mabel nervous – and there are a lot of things that make Mabel nervous – she licks my hand, my face, or her own lips. It’s like she can’t help herself. As I said above, what I’ve done with Mabel is simple. While licking may help her calm down, I won’t reward it with my own behavior.
I stop whatever I did that preceded the licking, and I wait for her to calm herself and sit. Often, it’s my fault that I did something that makes her nervous. Removing your dog from the scary situation, or removing the scary thing from near your dog, is the best way to help nervous lickers.
- For The Compulsive Lickers: Truly compulsive lickers may need to see a vet, a trainer, or a veterinary behaviorist. They have taken the normal behavior of cleaning, licking to release social tension, or licking to ask for food to an unhealthy extreme. These dogs may lick through carpet, they may give themselves sores.
Some dogs only lick certain things at certain times. I have a good friend with a Wheaton Terrier that licks a specific couch cushion during the entirety of every storm that hits their Boston home.
Another dog I know licks his paws bloody if his owner leaves town. While these dogs may need help, it’s incredibly important for you to identify what causes the compulsive licking and attempt to reduce that stressor in your dog’s life.
Stop Licking By Providing A Better Option
Many dogs will benefit from having something appropriate to lick.
Try freezing peanut butter into a Kong or other hollow toy, so that your dogs can spend time licking something that’s actually good for them. You may want to try this even if your dog doesn’t have a licking problem, to prevent them from getting bored.
Do you have a major licker in your life? Do you have video proof of your dog being a problem licker? What do you do stop your dog from licking? Let’s talk about it.