Who hasn’t seen a dog licking himself at one time or another? Unlike cats, who lick to groom their fur and keep clean, dogs usually lick in response to something happening on or in their skin. Limiting licking and preventing the problems that accompany it depend on understanding what triggers the behavior.
Skin: The Largest Organ
Skin, the body’s largest organ, can be very sensitive to changes happening within the body or to things touching the outside of the body. Skin reactions could be caused by something in the dog’s environment, such as an insect bite or mold or mildew from the lawn.
Sometimes the irritant comes from the inside: Dogs can experience food allergies, just as humans can. A strong connection exists between emotional state and skin inflammation. Arousal, anxiety, and other emotions can create a change in body chemicals that may be reflected in changes in the skin.
Why Dogs Lick
When a dog has an itch, he licks in an effort to make the itch stop or to calm the skin. If he finds relief because of licking, he may form a habit of doing so over time. It becomes a way for your dog to soothe himself.
Many dogs were bred for active jobs, working for or with humans in some way. For example, retrievers, herding dogs, and terriers were bred to have the stamina to work a lot during the day. Most of our dogs, whether purebred or mixed breed, are no longer required to be very active. In fact, most dogs do not get enough stimulation and spend their days sleeping or waiting for their owners to return from long workdays. Licking a paw or leg might relieve your dog’s boredom.
Without intervention, some dogs can lick so much that they develop “hot spots” or lick granulomas. These are spots on the skin that become highly irritated, infected, or hardened as a result of continued licking. Rather than letting things get to that point, it is best to address excessive licking right away.
How to Manage Licking
What should you do if your dog develops a fixation on licking his paws or tummy? As with any change in behavior, a checkup at the veterinarian is a good idea. Changes in food, weather, seasons, medications, shampoos, or infrequent (or too frequent) bathing could all result in excessive licking. Pain in the joints can also cause a dog to lick the affected area.
Any time you notice extra licking, make a list of possible contributing factors.
If your veterinarian is able to rule out any clear medical issue, honestly consider this question: Does your dog have plentiful opportunities for pleasurable activities?
Activities for Mental Health
For good mental health, dogs need to participate in several different activities. As a Dog Behavior Consultant, I make sure that my clients understand the four areas of essential exercise that are required for all dogs, which can help prevent excessive licking and boredom.
#1: Physical Activity
All dogs, even seniors, need regular physical activity. Walks, games like tug or fetch, and specific exercises like running or swimming release endorphins, which makes dogs feel good.
I consider chewing to be a separate type of exercise for our canine companions. Dogs have amazing teeth, and many breeds have very well-developed jaws. Giving them an appropriate outlet for chewing is a good stress reliever—it’s a boredom buster, too! Dogs without enough “legal” opportunities to chew sometimes damage household possessions when they feel the urge to exercise their jaws. Edible bones and long-lasting chew toys or chew treats can meet this need—and save your furniture.
#3: Mental Stimulation
Dogs must have mental stimulation as well. Because they can’t do crossword puzzles, we should take note of what kinds of problem-solving they enjoy. Giving your dog his entire meal in a bowl might take him just 30 seconds to finish. Instead, make mealtime a brain-stimulating game. Food-dispensing puzzle toys can hold at least a portion of the meal, resulting in slower ingestion and better digestion. You can also separate a meal into several empty boxes around a room for your dog to hunt and find. Encouraging him to hunt or work for his food provides the brain challenge that helps relieve boredom, which makes for a happier dog.
#4: Use the Nose!
Lastly, let’s consider a dog’s nose. A large portion of a dog’s brain is configured to process input from his olfactory system (his sense of smell). Smelling is as primary to a dog as sight is to most humans. So if we are not allowing our dogs to put that amazing apparatus to work, we are missing a wonderful opportunity to entertain, enrich, and exhaust them!
Rather than asking your dog to move at your pace on every walk or run, passing by all the wonderful smells in the world, allow him some “sniff time.” Walking past an area where lots of smells are generated? Take a moment to let your pup exercise that incredible nose. Many of us would not be happy without the chance to check our e-mails, watch our favorite shows, or read the daily paper. Expecting your dog to ignore the “news” around your neighborhood isn’t reasonable. Besides, allowing him opportunities to sniff the world on a regular basis may reduce stress and make him an even better companion.
Janet Velenovsky, CPDT-KA, CDBC, ACCBC, KPA CTP, is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant, and a Certified Training Partner from the Karen Pryor Academy. She led the Training & Behavior Education Department for Premier Pet Products and is the Chair of the Working Animals division of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Janet and Kaizen, her first Golden Retriever, visited Katrina-ravaged Louisiana in December 2005 as members of Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response (www.hopeaacr.org). She now makes therapy visits with Teddy, Piper, Oscar, and Keiko, all registered with Therapy Dogs, Inc.