PetLvr Mailbag: Canine Oral Fixation is Curable

DearĀ  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.

Any idea?

–Sick of the Lick

Dear “Sick,”

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.

Sincerely,
Jelena

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

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2 Responses

  1. Veronique
    | Reply

    Hi.

    My pug frank seems to also have an oral fixation. He is 3 or 4 years old adopted from a shelter as a stray (he is an escape artist). He does the compulsive hand and legs licking you described. We have that part somehow under control and he knows we don’t like it, although he forgets himself sometimes. He also suckle on toys for long periods of time.

    Now his new fixation is to lick and chew on his doggy sister Olive. Olive gets groomed by our other dog Addie as well. Addie does it in a motherly way. She does the whole body and the ears. She was a puppy mill bitch, so she know pup care! Now Olive LOVES all the attention, she even asks for it. But when Frank licks her it’s almost disturbing. He is so obsessive. It’s one spot over and over (the longest I tolerated before stopping him was a full 45minutes). If Olive didn’t roll around, he would lick and chew on the same spot on her thigh non-stop. It sometimes gets sexual too when he licks and does a humping motion at the same time, his body doesn’t even touch her… It’s not like the dominance humping he sometimes does at the dog park where you see he tries to mount other dominant dogs.

    I find this all very strange. At this point, I’m not sure what to do. I am almost certain it’s Pica, but it’s not dangerous, he’s not eating anything bad for him. He is not disturbing us by licking us and Olive enjoys the attention. But it looks so unhealthy in an Silence of the Lambs kind of way.

    What do you think?

    Veronique

  2. Veronique
    | Reply

    Oh, I want to add that we do think that part of it is boredom. He is a very active dog so on rainy days or days that are too hot to spend the whole day in the yard, the licking is worse.

    Also, I want to add that although he chews on Olive (this started by only when he got super excited like at feeding time or before walks) he is gentle enough not to hurt her. When he isn’t, she snaps at him. They are also all spayed and neutered so if it ever got to a real humping point (which I don’t think Olive would go for) it would not have any consequence. Finally although he is stronger than her and she is very fragile (italian greyhound) she defends herself when he is too rough and he backs off. Addie would also bite his face off if he was to hurt her since she thinks Olive is her overgrown pup. So there really no danger to the dogs besides, I don’t know, fungal infection from being wet all the time…

    My problem is that it seems psychologically very unhealthy.

    You should also know that the dogs are rarely alone since I work from home. They have access to the yard throughout the day and we play with them. The vet did have us put Frank on a diet because he had gained a pound or two, but he has lost them and even then he was not overweight, but vets want pugs to stay very slim if possible especially in Florida where they can easily suffer from heat strokes.

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