Canine kisses originate from the normal ways dogs communicate with each other. Submissive dogs will lick higher ranking individuals on the muzzle to acknowledge their place in the pack structure. Puppies will lick their mother around the mouth to encourage her to regurgitate food for them to eat. Owners often inadvertently go on to reinforce “face-licking” behavior by reacting positively to it, at least at its onset. Dogs then think, “Hey, if some is good, more must be better.”
To discourage dogs from licking people, say “no” in a low tone of voice and ignore the dog for a short period of time whenever the behavior occurs. Once the dog is not trying to lick, engage him in play that discourages the behavior, chasing a ball for example.
Itchy skin diseases are usually to blame if a dog licks his own coat and skin more than is normal. Canine allergies, fleas, mange, skin infections, and adverse food reactions are some of the more common reasons for dogs to be itchy. Excessive licking can also be caused by pain, anxiety, and a type of obsessive behavior, particularly if the dog focuses a particular area of skin.
Dogs lick objects in their environment as part of their normal exploratory behavior, but when it is taken to extremes, the behavior can be indicative of a gastrointestinal disorder. A recent study of nineteen dogs diagnosed with “excessive licking of surfaces” or ELD found that 74% of them suffered from an underlying GI disease such as inflammatory bowel disease, delayed gastric emptying, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pancreatitis, gastric foreign body, or Giardia infection.
The dogs that were diagnosed with a specific condition received appropriate treatment. The rest were fed a novel ingredient diet and given antacids and anti-nausea medications. The dogs were reevaluated 30, 60, and 90 days after treatment was started. ELD improved in 59% of the dogs and resolved completely in 53% of them.
Dogs that lick people, themselves, or objects excessively may a behavioral problem, a medical disorder, or some combination of the two. Unless the underlying cause is obvious and responds to common sense treatment, talk to your veterinarian.