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, so what can we do to teach our furry friends not to lick us? Even more importantly, how do we know if your dog’s licking is a serious problem?
Why Does My Dog Lick?
Licking is a pretty normal behavior in dogs – but why? There are a few different reasons why a dog may lick, including:
1. To Ask For Food
This sort licking is often directed towards a beloved human’s face, especially after the human has been away at work. 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 video of wolf puppies licking 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 their lips 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, the floor, 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.
5. Because You Taste Good
If you’re salty after a workout or covered in barbeque sauce, it’s no surprise that your pup wants in on the action! Dogs that lick spills on the floor or even the upholstry might also be motivated by delicious tastes.
6. Because He Loves You
Licking can also be a plain old sign of affection. Last night after being reuinited after a two-week separation, my border collie kept giving me gentle licks on the hand.
Normally, he only licks me when he’s excited (or if I’m salty), but when he’s especially happy to be near me, he seems to enjoy licking my palms. This sort of licking is common during calm cuddle-time with your pup.
Understanding The Root Cause Of Your Dog’s Licking
You may be thinking, “I don’t care why Fido won’t stop licking me – I just want it to stop!”
I understand that. But it’s far easier to treat a behavior problem if we know the cause. Then we can address the problem at its root and meet your dog’s needs in another way.
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 dog 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 figure out how to change the environment so your dog is less likely to lick you at times that drive you nuts.
Here are a few examples:
Example One: Sweat-Licking
If your dog tends to lick you after runs and this grosses you out, try to towel off and then shower right away. Give your dog a stuffed Kong to keep her busy with something else tasty.
Example Two: Compulsive Licking
If your dog really can’t seem to stop licking, it might be compulsive. Talk to your vet about calming chews and behavior medication.
In the meantime, give your dog more Kongs and appropriate things to lick. Take her on more long, decompression-type walks in nature.
Use calming caps, Thundershirts, Zyklene chewable tablets, window film and anything else that might help give your pup a break from what stresses her out. Again, situational medication (such as during thunderstorms) might be your best bet here.
Truly compulsive lickers may need to see a vet, a reputable 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.
Dogs that lick couches until the couch is drenched or lick themselves until they’ve got a sore need to see a vet and a trainer to get help.
Example Three: Bored, Affectionate Licking
Some dogs just seem to love licking their people. If you find yourself being licked slobbery while trying to relax after work, give your dog something better to do!
Again, stuffed Kongs are my go-to response for this. You can also simply stand up and walk away – quietly, no fuss – if your dog licks you. Scolding or swatting often makes this problem worse, because then your dog wants to appease you (and in dog language, licking is appeasing).
Some dogs just seem to love licking their people. If you find yourself being licked slobbery while trying to relax after work, give your dog something better to do! Again, stuffed Kongs are my go-to response for this.
You can also simply stand up and walk away – quietly, no fuss – if your dog licks you. Scolding or swatting often makes this problem worse, because then your dog wants to appease you (and in dog language, licking is appeasing).
If your dog is on a bit of a diet, stuff your daily Kongs with boiled carrots, applesauce, and rice soaked in chicken broth – or just with your dog’s regular breakfast kibble and a bit of wet dog food.
The reason I love Kongs for licking problems in dogs is because Kongs let your dogs lick something appropriate. We’re meeting your dog’s apparent need to lick while also meeting your need not to be licked.
Example Four: 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.
If you don’t want your dog to keep licking you, you cannot reward her behavior with attention!
Instead, pay attention to your dog when her tongue is inside her chompers. Again, avoid scolding or swatting as this might make your dog try to lick you to calm you down.
Example Five: Clean-Up Lickers
Again, this behavior is largely normal and should not be discouraged.
Dogs lick their paws, bellies – and yes, their butts – as part of normal, healthy grooming. 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.
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. These dogs really should be getting professional help. In the meantime, it’s incredibly important to identify what causes the compulsive licking and attempt to reduce that stressor in your dog’s life.
It’s also important to check your dog for allergies, injuries, or sores if you notice him licking a lot. Last time I was woken up by my dog licking his paws (slurp, slurp, gross), I found a huge cactus spine in his paw! Just today I noticed he was licking his paws more than usual – and I found a little raw patch of skin that is bugging him.
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!