The first licking experienced by a puppy comes from its dam even before the pup’s eyes are open. Licking is used to groom the pup and, after feeding, to cause urination and defecation. It is doubtful that a young pup consciously considers licking a dominant behavior. However, the act of licking can acquire various other meanings to puppies as they mature and gain feedback from other animals (including people) they lick. Licking by neonatal pups is usually aimed at the dam’s mouth and, at least in wild canines, elicits a gratifying regurgitation of food by the dam for its offspring.
Licking another animal can broadly be classified as care-seeking behavior. However, in some females and apparently “feminized” males, licking may occur as a genuine mutual grooming gesture, which could be considered dominant behavior in such situations. When one dog tries to lick the genitals of another, the behavior is considered submissive. This is usually practiced by submissive pack members toward their dominant counterparts.
Licking seems to acquire different meanings when the puppy is brought into the human group. The significance of licking then depends on the type of feedback provided by the pup or its owners. The old idea that dogs lick our hands to benefit from the salt on our skin rarely applies to licking problems. Rather, the problem generally involves a submissive dog and a permissive owner. In these cases, early episodes of licking are permitted (some people feel genuinely flattered when their dog licks them) and the dog appears to enjoy the owner’s response.
In many cases, licking is a factor in another type of problem behavior. These usually involve the dog’s use of licking to dominate the owner’s attentions or to demonstrate its dominant feelings relative to the owner.
How Can Licking Be Prevented?
Licking is a problem only when the owner is present. Therefore licking is usually easily stopped merely by telling the dog not to do it or by moving away and avoiding it. After a few days or weeks of this rejection, the problem disappears. However, this procedure does not correct the basis of the problem, that is, attempts to dominate the owner.
In addition to discouraging licking, the dog must be taught to respond to commands, and owner adjustments made if the dog is “coddled” or otherwise doted on. When it seeks petting or tries to dominate the owner, it should be given a simple command, such as Sit, and then petted briefly as a reward for obedience.
It is recommended that you use some intervening stimulus when the dog begins to pester you. Whether this involves introduction of a chewable toy that the pet is urged to fetch, or a sharp sound, the goal is to divert the animal’s mind off licking and onto something else. During the initial stages of correction, there may be seen many types of substitute behavior, such as whining, pacing or self-licking. If ignored, this behavior usually disappears in a few days.