Anyone with a dog knows that licking is one of the many activities a pet parent just has to get used to. However, if you suspect that your dog is licking too much, or engaging in compulsive licking behavior, you may have a whole other issue coming your way.
There are a lot of reasons for a dog to lick. Some dogs lick because something tastes good or smells good, in which case licking is perfectly natural. Sometimes dogs lick out of boredom or because they’re simply happy to see you. But if you have a dog that seems to be doing an awful lot of licking all the time, you may have a dog suffering from anxiety. Dogs can have severe anxiety that you might be totally unaware of, and that anxiety oftentimes results in incessant and compulsive licking.
Red Flags – Compulsive Licking
So – if there are lots of perfectly good reasons dogs lick, how do you know when licking is excessive or compulsive? Here are a few red flags:
- Licking the air
- Licking metal or plastic that should have little or no taste or odor
- Licking for an excessive amount of time (generally speaking, if your dog sits down in order to start licking you, they are probably doing it for an excessive amount of time.
- You find spots of wear in areas that dog has been licking (such as on a couch or pillow)
- Your dog continues to lick excessively despite admonitions or discipline
- What causes a dog to be anxious? We don’t exactly know what goes on in a dog’s head, but we know that they get anxious, and that any anxiety they may feel is worsened when they are bored or don’t receive enough exercise. Especially for smarter breeds (such as working dogs like Border Collies or other intelligent breeds like Poodles), boredom leads to restlessness, which leads to anxiety. If you have a dog struggling with anxiety and licking too much, the first thing you should do to address the issue is begin exercising them more frequently or for longer amounts of time. You may also try providing them with toys and games that stimulate their brain and require effort. Before you can address the licking itself, it is necessary to fulfill the dog’s needs.
Once your dog is no longer struggling with boredom and inattention, you’re ready to begin addressing the licking issue. For some dogs, they will stop licking when their attention is directed elsewhere through exercise and games. But for many dogs, their licking has become a compulsive habit, and that habit still has to be broken even though you have addressed the underlying issue.
So how do you break the habit?
Redirect their attention. When the dog starts licking, engage in a fun activity such as throwing a ball or giving your dog a little massage. Allow your dog to lick you for shorter and shorter amounts of time, weaning them off of the habit until they give you just a few licks and then are off to do other things.
Be aware of how you give them treats; if you reward their licking with a treat, extra attention, or snuggling, they won’t change the pattern because they like the payoff. Gently eliminate the payoff and it will decrease their motivation to lick. Give your dog appropriate attention that relaxes them. Many dogs seem to be anxious when their owners appear distant; spend some time each day actively engaging with your pup.
Is your dog still licking?
If you have tried all of these suggestions and given it a few weeks to sink in, but your dog hasn’t changed its behavior, it may be time to take him or her to the vet. There are neurological conditions that may cause or contribute to excessive licking. Most often it is simply anxiety and boredom. However, if alleviating the underlying anxiety, exercising your dog regularly, and engaging with them in positive non-licking activities has not significantly decreased their licking behavior, have your vet check them out for physiological maladies.