I recently received a question from a reader:
My dog is perfect except for one problem: He’s constantly licking my hands and tries to lick my face. How can I convince him to stop doing this? Thanks!
Jason, Tampa, FL
Thanks for you question, I find it salivating! Oh, sorry. The English major in me couldn’t let that go unsaid.
Excessive licking — and sometimes any canine licking at all — really bothers some folks. Everything is relative, of course. I work every week with dogs who have bite histories, so in those dogs I would greatly prefer that they learn to lick instead of bite, but that’s not your issue.
If this is a compulsive behavior rather than just an annoying one, please take your dog to a veterinarian and get a complete medical checkup to rule out any contributing medical factors.
If not, let’s try to understand the dog’s motivation for this behavior, at least as much as we can without putting him on a chaise lounge and paying for a therapy session, which wouldn’t help us much without the gift of language.
First, ask yourself what you think your dog is communicating by licking you. Here are some general possibilities:
• You taste good and salty!
• He’s saying hello.
• He’s being affectionate (aw but kinda gross).
• He’s trying to initiate play.
• He’s being a bit of a pest and seeking your attention in a manner that makes sense to him.
Think about what was occurring in your dog’s environment just prior to a recent licking episode. Did it happen when you sat down on the couch, beer in hand, ready to watch football? If yes, then be prepared: As you sit down, redirect him to something that will hold his attention, such as a frozen Kong stuffed with something as simple as his dinner or a treat way more interesting like peanut butter or beef broth.
But what if he empties the Kong in the first quarter and then tries to lick you for the rest of the game? Well, you could actually have a frozen Kong for each quarter (of half if you are a soccer fan). You could add in dog puzzles, as well. In other words, you can stop the licking before it occurs by redirecting his focus from you.
Let’s say your dog ignores the Kong and keeps coming at you with his tongue, trying to slurp your hands and face. In that case, if you are still sitting on the couch, don’t say a word to the dog — instead give yourself a timeout. Stand up, cross your arms, and look away from the dog. He will then likely look at you in a curious state. If he sits, then pet him and praise the behavior you do want from him. If starts licking again, repeat the removal of ALL of your attention for a few seconds, even eye contact. It’s important not to say anything to your dog, such as “quit it” or “stop it,” because it may be just enough of a reinforcing communication that it actually encourages the licking.
Be sure to keep the timeouts very short — just a few seconds. Again, if the dog offers you a behavior you like better, be sure to praise and pet him. If he stands looking at you with an expression on his doggie face that asks: “What the heck, bro,” then give him a cue he knows well, such as “sit,” and reinforce that behavior. Basically, your body responses are telling him that if he licks, you are removing yourself from the situation. If he offers you preferred behavior, you sit back down and interact with him.
Again, think back to what is happening just prior to a licking episode. Perhaps you usually walk him right after work, and he is saying, “Hey! You! Let’s go for our daily walk,” using the lick, lick, lick to help get you moving. If that has a role in his behavior, change YOUR behavior. For instance, come right home and throw the ball for him in the backyard for 20 minutes or play a fun game of “find it” in the house, during which you hide treats and release him to go find them. You are then teaching him what you prefer he does, and you have lots of opportunities to tell him what a good boy he is. Believe me, I understand how frustrating it is for you both if you are always yelling, “Quit it!”
The key is to think about what you want your dog to do instead of what it is you don’t want him to do, and then teach him the right behavior and reinforce the heck out it.
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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She takes her highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.