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How to Stop a Dog From Licking Himself

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 dog licks due to boredom or stress

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.

Kong

2. Dogs lick 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.

Things dogs can be allergic to

  • Pollen
  • Dust
  • 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

A dog’s paws or skin could also be irritated

  • 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.

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If you suspect your dog has food allergies

You can try using a process of elimination.

dry dog food kilbble

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.

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.

Dog reacting to a baby staring

Should I be worried 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

Dog licking his hip

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

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 your dog with 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.

If it seems like your dog is bored, try to increase his exercise and mental stimulation. Provide him with puzzle-type toys instead of food bowls. Try a new activity like agility or flyball.

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.

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How 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.

How to stop a dog from licking himself

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.

Pro Collar

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.

SONY DSC

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!

*Enjoying this article? Get realistic dog training tips emailed once a week. Click Here

Additional resources:

Lindsay Stordahl is the founder of That Mutt. She writes about dog training, dog exercise and feeding a healthy raw diet.

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.

Suzanne tinker

Tuesday 21st of July 2020

My dog has developed over a period of time become a compulsive licker to one back foot ive been wrapping it up lately in a sock and bandage around that as he was getting good at getting it off especially when alone.Vet said he has a disorder and to just keep doing what im doing but isnt there something i can do to get him out of the habit.

Gail

Wednesday 13th of March 2019

Mine licks but worse than that, he drinks his own urine while peeing!!!!! OMG!! What’s up with THAT? His breath is terrible, no one wants him to breathe on them, including my 2 other dogs!!! Help!

Lindsay Stordahl

Thursday 14th of March 2019

I don't know, I have not heard of that before. Would be worth asking your vet about it in case there is a medical reason. I'm guessing it's just an odd "quirk" your dog has but just in case.

katherine clark

Tuesday 22nd of November 2016

Coco has a lot of allergies that is why she licks or scratches herself. When its really bad sometimes I give her benzoyl. One thing I have notice is when she goes to the groomer gets her hair cut and a bath she itches a lot more than when I get her home I spray her down with a,solution that has aloe in it which helps eliminating all the itching I talked to the groomer to see what she is using, I think coco is a allergic but she said they use stuff that dogs are allergic to to I am presently taking her to outsmart for grooming. Do you think I should take her some where else. After a few days after grooming she doesn't itch as much.

jude

Tuesday 22nd of November 2016

Sade-Mae licks herself from her allergies and we give her the dose of benydrl her vet said to give and she's good. But! After her recent toe amputation she will NOT leave the top of her paw alone since getting her stitches out a week ago, she was put in the *cone* at the vets, she had the outside of it bloodied by the time we got home cause she could still reach her front paw! Booties, bandages..she is told "No" all day but in the *wee hours* of the morning she wakes up and I can tell she'd been at this one spot on top of her paw. I did just get some itch/pain cream seems to help but I'm concerned this one spot will not heal correctly if she won't leave it alone! Granted it's only in the middle of the night now, she hasn't opened it back up or bleed but..she is still irritating it & keeping it swollen and the fur is slow to grow back there!. I'm hoping as time passes she will just leave it be. It's been 3 weeks today since her surgery and she started walking, running on all fours yesterday, started playing again yesterday too..just *bam* different gal from one day to the next..she is also eating & drinking normally ALL IN ONE DAY! So, I'm hopeful the licking will stop just as suddenly..it's got me exhausted!!

Rachel

Friday 17th of June 2016

Our GSD licks his wrist at times. This is due to stress, and probably boredom. I first noticed this when he was only months old, and I thought he had something wrong with him. As he was dragged up with his litter mates in a shed with no socialisation at all, not even human contact, I think the stress from being domesticated got to him. I have observed his behaviour over the years, and we have come to the conclusion that he has come from working stock, which just probably added to his frustrations (which we didn't know at the time) . As he has got older we have learned to understand him, and, although he does it from time to time, its a lot less nowadays. (He has learnt how to live with humans in a domestic environment and has got used to it.)