Dear PetLvr Mailbag,
One of my dogs compulsively licks. He’s always licking at my hands, face, ear, arms, legs, anything he can. Whenever I pet him, he just tries to lick my hand. How the hell do I get him to stop? I’ve tried scolding, yelling, flicking him and saying “no lick!” but nothing works.
–Sick of the Lick
Compulsive licking is usually either a learned superstitious habit (the dog was rewarded for it in the past and thinks it is now necessary) or indicative of some sort of problem that occurred during the time in your dog’s life at which he should have learned to interact appropriately with humans (around 6-16 weeks). Often, puppies weaned too early or orphaned puppies who were bottle fed display compulsive mouthing behaviors like licking and sucking.
Whatever caused this behavior, it’s certainly annoying– the good news is, it’s also a fairly easy behavior to stop. Get a pocket full of treats and some object that is a comfortable size and texture for your dog to hold in his mouth. If he’s gentle with stuffed toys and doesn’t shred them, those work well; otherwise, a Kong rubber toy, a Nylabone, or a bully stick is a good choice. If it’s not already flavored or appealing, rub some bacon grease or cheese on it.
Hold the object out to your dog and encourage him to put it in his mouth. When he does, immediately either click a clicker (if you’re clicker training) or give a distinctive word of praise like “Okay!” and reward with a treat. Repeat several times, until the dog understands taking the toy = receive a food reward.
Next, you teach holding the toy for a longer duration. Wait to reward with a treat until the toy is in his mouth for three seconds, five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen seconds, and so on and so forth.
Once he’s got the idea that if he holds the toy, he’ll eventually get a reward, you can replace the food treats with attention. Pet and praise him as long as he’s got the toy in his mouth. If he drops it or licks you, turn your back and count slowly to ten, then cue him to pick it up again. Withdrawing your attention is both a clearer signal and more punishing to your dog than flicking him; attention seeking behaviors are not effectively punished by yelling or swatting the dog, because that’s also attention.
Over a period of several days to a couple weeks, you should be able to establish a pattern with your dog. He picks up a toy, preventing him from licking, and you give him attention. He drops the toy or licks you, and the attention stops. By replacing the compulsive licking with the learned behavior of holding a toy, you can allow the dog to satisfy his oral fixation without annoying you or subjecting himself to the toxins that may be on your skin, like perfumes or lotions with ingredients toxic to dogs.
Training a behavior incompatible with the annoying behavior is very often the wisest and quickest way to get rid of something a pet is doing that bothers you. This also works for things like barking at the door: Instead of running to the door barking, teach the dog to run to the door with a toy.
If you have a pet related question that you would like Jelena Woehr to answer here in our “PetLvr Mailbag” series … send your question to jelena (at) PetLvr (dot) com