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Licking Furniture and Clothing

Q: I have 2 dogs, a Pomeranian/Shih Tzu Mix and a Long-Haired Chihuahua.  We acquired the Chihuahua, Shadow, at 1.5 years of age.  I believe he was neglected.  We can not seem to housebreak him.  He will pee and poop right in front of us, even though we take him out regularly.  He will relieve himself outdoors, but return inside shortly thereafter and urinate indoors.  The vet says “nothing is wrong with him,” but I beg to differ.  He also has a strange behavior of licking, not himself, but EVERYTHING else- the couch for example.  He will climb atop our sectional and walk the entire couch while licking it.  He also licks our clothes constantly.

A: Since Ask the Expert has addressed several housebreaking inquiries over the last several months, in this response we will exclusively respond to your licking question.

Shadow may abnormally lick your furniture and clothing for several reasons:
When you are away from home or away from a room, arising from separation anxiety, Shadow may lick the furniture to acquire your scent.  Licking your scent from the furniture may aid in temporarily reducing Shadow’s separation distress.

Subordinate and/or submissive dogs will occasionally lick superior pack mates under the chin, especially during greetings.  Since Shadow is a Chihuahua and can not reach your chin, he may instead elect to lick your clothing.

Shadow may have a general anxiety disorder, therefore, the physical activity of his licking behavior and being able to acquire your scent may help to reduce his anxiety.

Shadow may have begun licking because something stressful occurred in the environment (outdoor or indoor construction, yard maintenance, change in familial structure or schedule) and licking helped to redirect and relax Shadow. Now, even if the source of the stress is no longer present, the behavior persisted and became a habit.

Shadow may lick the furniture simply because he is bored.

Shadow may lick furniture and clothing as an attention seeking behavior.  Even if you reprimand Shadow for the behavior, Shadow may believe the unpleasantness of the punishment is outweighed by the value of the attention.

Shadow may have first licked for any of the above reasons, but now the behavior may have evolved into an obsessive-compulsive behavior that occurs with abnormal frequency, in abnormal contexts, interferes with the operation of normal behaviors or activities, and has assumed addictive characteristics.

Fortunately, there are a number of solutions that when performed alone or (even better) in combination should reduce Shadow’s licking behavior, make you a happier pet owner, and concurrently improve Shadow’s quality of life.
If you believe separation anxiety is a primary culprit, I recommend reading a previous Ask the Experts response that describes in great detail how to resolve separation distress: http://www.lovingpetsproducts.com/ask-the-expert/225-how-can-i-cure-my-dog-from-separation-anxiety.

If you believe inordinate submissiveness is a primary cause, engage in more play activities with Shadow, enroll Shadow in a positive-reinforcement based obedience class, and avoid using verbal or physical discipline.

If you believe Shadow is a generally anxious dog, consider asking your vet about anti-anxiety medication that may improve Shadow’s psychological condition and help to modify Shadow’s physical behavior.

If you believe a specific stressful stimulus has helped to create Shadow’s behavior, either remove the stimulus from the environment, remove Shadow from the stimulus, or desensitize Shadow to the stimulus.
Regardless of the cause, but especially if you believe the primary cause is boredom, I highly recommend proactively stimulating Shadow.  Take Shadow for more frequent and/or longer walks.  Take Shadow running or engage Shadow in another form of rigorous exercise.  And mentally stimulate Shadow via obedience training.

If you believe a primary cause is attention seeking, ignore the behavior or even walk away from Shadow, then praise Shadow and interact with Shadow only after he clearly has ceased the behavior.
Concurrently use a passive tactile deterrent, such as aluminum foil, Velcro, or double-sided tape on the furniture.  The deterrent should make being on the furniture uncomfortable for Shadow.  Keeping Shadow off the furniture should eliminate his furniture licking behavior. Moreover, the method works, regardless of whether you are present.
Alternatively or in combination with a tactile deterrent, use a passive odor or taste deterrent on your clothing or furniture, provided the product does not stain the fabric (first perform a spot test).  Options include bitter apple or bitter lime gel or spray or granular dog repellent.

If you believe the behavior is highly habitual or obsessive-compulsive, in addition to the above solutions, redirect Shadow when he performs the behavior.  You may redirect him by providing an oral alternative, such as a chew item (bone, rawhide, stuffed animal, Kong, etc.), then praising him when he transfers his attention from the furniture or your clothing to the chew item.

If you see Shadow on the furniture, you might consider using an air horn or shake can.  You can also use a squirt gun.  Similarly, you can use the air horn, shake can, or squirt gun if Shadow licks your clothing.  However, since his behavior may arise from anxiety, we prefer that you leave this solution as a last resort.

If you need further help reducing Shadow’s licking behavior, I recommend contacting a local trainer or behaviorist.  If you live in the Atlanta, GA area, we recommend contacting a CPT behavior modification professional (www.cpt-training.com).  CPT professionals are also available for interstate consultations.