Question: We have a female wire-haired terrier (our whole clan is pictured in the attachment) that was rescued about a year ago at about 4 months of age. Jazzie is an obsessive licker. She licks her lips from the moment she wakes up, then proceeds to lick us - hands, legs, face, whatever's available. (You can hear the moment she wakes up at the end of our bed, from the smacking of her lips!) She will finally calm down after some time to sleep, but it makes us not want her near us, because of the constant licking. It's stressful. When we tell her firmly to stop with a hand in her face she does, but after a moment, starts up again.
She's a very sweet girl and we love her a lot, but her licking is sooo annoying we get impatient, especially first thing in the morning and when we're trying to relax at the end of the day. We have to keep washing our hands after Jazzie gets ahold of us!
This sounds like a very unusual problem, but I believe that this behavior can successfully be turned around. You mentioned this problem started when the dog was still about 16 weeks or four months of age. This tells me the dog was in its puppy stages. The first 20 weeks of a dog's life is the imprinting stage. Whatever a dog learns in this period will usually stick with the dog for life. This does not mean that the dog can't be trained out of it. It simply means this is what the dog will use for an acceptance resource survival guide. Simply put, when the dog is under a great deal of stress it will resort to its original way of learning.
I believe this problem can be treated as a bad habit. Often when a dog licks it's a sign of pacifying or looking for acceptance or comfort. Usually you see the dog licking his front lips and ears back slightly. If this sounds familiar I believe we're on the right track. There are a few things that we train a dog to do without realizing that we are teaching the dog to do the exact things we don't want. Every time you touch your dog it's easy for the dog to perceive that it is doing the exact behavior that makes you happy and ensures acceptance in the pack.
So let's imagine you have this puppy that you feel has had a hard past and it starts displaying behaviors that you perceive to be a bit shy or submissive. You want to let your dog know everything is okay so you talk to or pet it to reassure comfort. Unfortunately this is the exact thing you want to avoid. Again, touch is acceptance so the dog starts to learn the sequence. A dog learns in the sequence of action, reaction, and reinforcement. Here's an example:
Action: I lick my lips
Reaction: You pet me
Reinforcement: I get comfort
So I lick my lips again and the circle begins.
You also mention the dog starts this behavior early in the morning as soon as your dog wakes. What does this tell me? It tells me that the dog is looking for reassurance.
However, you become frustrated because this problem has gone on for so long - which is now at an irritating state to you. So you send the dog away or avoid the dog. Now the dog feels isolated when avoided or sent away from the pack. This causes more insecurity and need to gain acceptance. So if you're not available he'll settle for anything that has your scent including clothes, furniture, shoes, floor, etc. Licking something with your scent on it is at least some comfort to him. He's thinking "I got to stay in the pack a little longer but what I really need is reassurance from the pack members themselves." So he goes and finds you and the cycle begins again.
Now let's get down to our behavior rehabilitation. What we need to do is create a new cycle that will let the dog know it is welcome to stay in the pack but must do something else to gain acceptance. Tools that can be used are common and a variety of things including commands like coming, sitting, or lying down in a corner. These are now to be looked at as jobs or tasks for your dog to do to assure it is doing its part in the pack.
The first thing you must do is create a task list or job description. The way this is done you must first create a wish list. I wish my dog would do this or I wish my dog would not do that. After this is done you want to prioritize and then let's only focus on the top five for now. Now the hard part comes in - you cannot pet your dog for the next two weeks. And, yes, I know what you're thinking but it's only a matter of wording. When you pet your dog they're getting acceptance for doing absolutely nothing. But if you work for something, you expect payment. The payment will be touching your dog in a petting like motion. We're going to replace the word petting for pay.
If your dog comes to you, you cannot pet it. However, if you would like to touch your dog then give your dog a command. Let say your dog is a foot away from you tap your leg and tell the dog to come. If the dog comes, give it a paycheck, which will resemble the petting your dog use to get for free. Do you see where we are going with this?
This will achieve two things. First your dog will now have a way to earn acceptance and not have to worry about being abandoned by its pack and secondly you have a dog that is responsive and you feel that you can enjoy time with your dog when "you" have decided to. So to recap:
1) Do not praise or touch your dog when it is licking its lips, acting shy, or submissive. Wait for the dog to stop this behavior and then give a verbal praise to your dog using a simple "good dog," no more. If the dog starts licking again, instantly stop the praise - wait for the licking to stop - and praise.
2) Create a task list or job description. Once this is done, sit down with everyone in your pack (or family) and make an agreement that when the dog does or does not do a behavior that is in your job description - everybody will respond with praise or correction in the same manor. This will ensure that everybody is on the same page. After all if you guys can't agree upon it how can the dog understand its job description?
3) NO petting - paychecks only! The dog must do something that YOU have decided to earn its paycheck. If the dog makes its own decision - like to come and sit in front of you it gets no paycheck. After all you want to be the leader, not a giant Pez dispenser.
4) When you are not going to interact with the dog, give it a place to lie - like a bed or towel and an item to chew on to help relieve stress or anxiety.
If you follow these simple steps - I'm sure it will be no time at all before your dog sits in front of you with the expression of, "Boy Dad, you look great! Have you been working out? Or - Mom! Beautiful job on the clothing and the makeup! Now that I'm here, would you mind giving me a little rub behind the ear or maybe a quick scratch in my favorite spot.
If you have any questions about your dog's behavior, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Rick will answer in his column. For any information on group or private lessons, you can call Rick at: 951-354-PAWS.