In this article, we’ll go over 4 reasons why dogs lick themselves. Then we’ll cover what you can do to stop a dog from licking himself so often.
Sometimes dogs lick their feet, rear end, tail or even their dog bed or the furniture.
Licking is normal dog behavior, but it can also be a sign of an allergy, pain, stress or anxiety.
Plus, that licking sound might be annoying to you or your family members! I mean, who wants to settle in to watch TV only to have the dog licking himself – loudly – in the corner.
Why do dogs lick themselves?
If you want to stop your dog from licking himself, you need to understand why he’s licking himself in the first place.
Beyond basic grooming and cleaning, here are the most common reasons why a dog would lick himself:
1. The dog licks herself as a habit.
Sometimes dogs lick themselves simply out of habit.
Maybe the licking was originally somewhat soothing, like a bit of a mild stress reliever or a way to handle mild boredom.
On the emotional side, a dog’s licking may symbolize boredom, anxiety or stress, according to Joan Weston, a canine behaviorist based in Toronto. Licking can be an outlet for that stress or a self-soothing behavior.
The most common areas that dogs lick are their feet and ankles. Weston explained that this type of licking is usually a sign of stress displacement, although it is often hard to narrow down the exact cause of a dog’s licking.
“Licking itself is not the problem. It’s an indicator of a problem,” she said.
The licking habit may have started with the dog feeling bored or stressed.
Licking usually arises in cases of either under-stimulation or over-stimulation. So if your dog is bored and feels like he has nothing to do, he may begin to lick himself. He might even do this to get attention from you.
Or, if he’s overwhelmed and stressed out, he may also lick.
If you suspect your dog might be licking himself due to boredom, try providing more exercise, training and engagement.
Evaluate how much exercise your dog is currently getting and increase it. Also, look into a couple of treat-dispensing toys such as a Kong toy. A Kong will give your dog something to do so he’s less focused on licking himself.
2. Dogs licking themselves due to itchy skin or allergies.
This is probably the most common reason for licking.
The problem is figuring out what exactly is causing the allergy.
Your dog could potentially be allergic to:
- Fleas or mites
- Chemicals on the lawn (or the grass itself)
- Food allergy
- Cedar-filled dog beds
- Essential oils used in the home
- Scented cleaning products or hygiene products
The dog’s paws or skin could also be irritated from:
- De-icing materials on sidewalks and streets in the winter
- Flea prevention products (natural or chemical)
- Swimming, dry air, snow or changes in weather
It can be a long haul to figure out what your dog is allergic to. Your dog’s vet can help you with that if you’re interested. Allergy testing is also an option and might be worth it to you.
If you suspect your dog has food allergies …
You can try using a process of elimination.
Start with a grain-free food and then try switching to foods with different, specific protein sources like turkey or salmon. Unfortunately, you won’t see an immediate change, so be patient and gradually change your dog’s food to avoid tummy issues.
Some people choose to start feeding a home cooked diet or a homemade raw diet so they can control exactly what their dogs eat. See my post on raw dog food recipes.
Remember, dogs can be allergic to “natural” products as well.
We’re in this crazy “natural” phase for all products, which is great! However, remember that people and dogs can still be allergic to natural products, especially when they’re scented.
If you suspect your dog might be allergic to a certain shampoo, a certain flea-prevention product or a certain supplement, try switching brands. Go with non-scented whenever possible.
3. Dogs lick themselves due to pain.
If your dog has sore joints or sore muscles, he might lick or chew himself in an attempt to relieve the pain.
Is your dog a senior? Is he slowing down on walks or limping? Sore legs might be the issue.
4. Dogs lick to show disinterest.
My dog Ace would lick himself to show he was uninterested in engaging with my other pets. He would also lick himself to show other dogs he was not threatening.
For example, he would turn away from our young foster dog when she wanted to play. Instead of engaging with her or correcting her, he would ignore her and focus on licking himself.
I believe this was a way to show disinterest in her and also a way to deal with his own mild stress.
In the image below, you can see Julia’s dog Baxter yawns and gives a little tongue flick to show he’s a bit uncomfortable with the baby approaching.
This is an appropriate response and dogs use this “tongue flick” behavior all the time to show acknowledgement.
Should I be worried that my dog is licking too much?
Some licking is natural in dogs. In fact, licking their lips is a calming signal that dogs use to communicate. This is similar to the example above where Baxter gives a quick lick as the baby approaches.
However, there are a couple of scenarios where a dog’s licking becomes a problem.
Dog’s licking causing raw skin
Some dogs lick so much that they may remove the hair from that particular part of their body and irritate the skin, said Weston. These granulomas or raw spots can be painful and difficult to heal.
The other situation where Weston said licking is a problem is if it impacts your dog’s quality of life.
Is the dog’s licking obsessive or behavior altering? Can you easily interrupt him or redirect him to other things? Or is he licking all the time?
Weston said to consider a human analogy of someone who bites their nails.
If it happens occasionally, it might not be a big deal. But if a person feels compelled to bite their nails most of the time, or if they’re injuring themselves, they may have a more serious situation that should be addressed.
Weston also shared that parentage can play a role in a dog’s licking.
“We know that anxiety in dogs can be inherited, just like in humans. It’s a behavior that is genetically modulated,” she said.
She also said anxiety often worsens at night, as it is chemically driven.
What to do if you’re worried about your dog’s licking
Recognize the difference between a dog’s normal licking and a licking obsession.
If your dog’s licking is impacting his quality of life, stopping him from doing normal activities or causing physical injuries, it’s time to look deeper and try to address it, Weston said.
How to stop a dog from licking himself
If you need to get your dog’s licking habit under control, here are some ideas to consider. You’ll need to choose what is best for your exact situation. These are general ideas.
1. Interrupt the dog with “no” or distract him with something else.
Sometimes you just need to tell your dog “no” or “Baxter, stop,” to get him to “reset” and focus on something else.
If speaking isn’t sufficient to make your dog stop licking, try to get him interested in a chew toy, bully stick or treat. You can also take him outside or into another room, play with him or simply sit and pet him.
2. Provide exercise, interaction & healthy food.
Make sure to provide your dog with his basic needs for physical exercise, mental challenges, play, downtime and a healthy diet.
Build obedience or trick training into your daily schedule.
3. Decrease your dog’s stress.
If it seems like your dog’s licking is emotionally driven, try to figure out what is triggering the licking. Is it boredom or anxiety? Is it a particular person or situation?
Weston shared an example of a dog who became anxious when a neighbor mowed the lawn. So keep in mind that the cause may be outside of your immediate environment, or may seem so inconsequential to you that you don’t think of it at first.
Just like in humans, everyone responds differently to changes and stress, so you have to try to see things from your dog’s point of view.
You may not be able to eliminate the stress—the neighbor needs to mow the grass, for example—but you can help your dog to learn to live with it.
If your dog’s licking seems to be driven by stress, you need to help your dog find peace.
Some ideas to reduce your dog’s stress:
Counter-conditioning. Help your dog to associate whatever is bothering him with good things.
Crate training. This gives your dog a space where he feels safe and comfortable.
Consistent routine. This can help your dog be more relaxed. In the case of a schedule change or new family member, some extra attention through play, petting or walks can help your dog adjust.
4. Talk with your dog’s vet about the licking habit.
Your vet can be an invaluable resource. A physical check-up can determine if the licking is driven by allergies, injury or pain.
Your regular vet may also recommend you to a veterinary specialist such as a canine dermatologist.
5. Hire a professional dog trainer for help.
Likewise, a dog trainer or behaviorist may be able to offer some ideas you had not thought of.
Consulting a behaviorist or someone who is able to evaluate your dog from a psychological perspective can be very helpful to determine the cause of your dog’s licking and how to address the behavior.
Weston emphasized that for behaviorists, the licking should be a secondary concern.
“Their goal is to address the underlying behavior, usually by adjusting the environment to either increase or decrease stimulation.”
6. Medication to stop a dog from licking.
Sometimes a vet or behaviorist may recommend medication for your dog. Just like in humans, medication can help to balance your dog’s emotions.
If itchiness is the issue, your dog’s vet may recommend Benadryl as a temporary relief while you work to eliminate the actual cause.
See our post: Benadryl for dogs.
There are also prescription allergy medications for dogs that can help.
Just make sure to ask about the proper dosage.
7. Use bitter apple spray to prevent a dog’s licking.
Consult with your vet first, but bitter apple spray can be an option for some dogs.
These sprays can be applied to a dog’s paws or other areas that they are licking. Most dogs dislike the taste, so they will stop licking.
However, these sprays simply address the behavior, not what has caused the licking.
8. Cone collar or Pro Collar to stop a dog from licking
If your dog’s licking is causing irritated or raw skin or infections you may need to temporarily use a cone collar (a.k.a. a “party hat”!). Also look into the more dog friendly Pro Collar, pictured below.
Again, these are not solving the actual cause of the dog’s licking.
9. Booties for paw protection.
If your dog’s paws are getting irritated from something in the environment, try a light pair of booties to protect them from chemicals outside.
I recommend the Pawz boots because they’re so lightweight and can be used year round.
You can also try wiping the paws off with a damp paper towel when you come inside to help remove pollen, dust, chemicals, etc.
Other types of licking or mouthing in dogs
As mentioned, some level of licking is normal in dogs.
Some dogs are sucklers, who may suck on a pillow or blanket or knead toys.
Weimaraners are known for their “nooking” behavior where they suckle on toys and blankets, for example!
This behavior links back to puppyhood. Mouthing and chewing is another common behavior exhibited by puppies and part of normal dog development.
I asked Weston about other forms of mouthing, like squeaking a toy. She explained that squeaking a toy or chewing a stick is usually different from licking.
This is a more of a predatory behavior and is usually rooted in an activity that makes the dog happy. Although admittedly dogs can become fixated on squeaking over and over and over.
Weston likened this behavior to a toddler who might fixate on a new toy or new ability as she develops.
What to look for in a dog trainer or behaviorist
If you decide to consult someone who evaluates your dog from a psychological perspective, do your research. Look for a person who has earned professional certifications and assess their methods before you introduce them to your dog.
Weston highlighted the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, Pet Professional Guild and Fear Free Pets as offering credible accreditations. Certification shows that your behaviorist has studied and is up-to-date on the best practices in this industry.
Weston advocates choosing someone who takes a science-based positive reinforcement approach to dog behavior.
“Learn about their methodology and trust your gut feeling,” she said. Dog behaviorism is not a well-regulated industry, so do your due diligence and find a professional who feels like a good fit for you and your dog.
If you are concerned for your dog, there is little downside to consulting a behaviorist or vet (aside, of course, from financial). Being told that your dog is fine can provide significant peace of mind. Or you may be given some solutions that can help your dog to live more comfortably and happily.
Like so many things our dogs do, licking can be a mystery. It is a complex behavior that can have numerous different causes and denote different things in different dogs.
Most of the time, licking isn’t a problem. However, sometimes it can signify a deeper issue, so it’s important to pay attention to your dog and find ways to help him live comfortably and happily.
Now we’d like to hear from you!
Can you think of any other reasons why dogs lick themselves?
Have you found a way to stop your dog from licking?
Let us know in the comments!
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Julia Preston contributed to this article. She has a sweet, laid-back boxer mix named Baxter. She is also a blogger at Home on 129 Acres where she writes about her adventures of country living and DIY renovating.