All dog owners have experienced it: you are comfortably lounging in your favorite chair, your bare feet dangling casually over the edge when your furry canine friend gives you a ticklish wake-up call. A warm, wet tongue between the toes is enough to make even the most seasoned dog owner shriek in disgust, but what is it that causes this decidedly odd behavior?
The truth is, there isn’t just one catch-all reason for foot-licking. It may be simply an interesting smell or flavor that your dog is compelled to explore, but foot licking can also be attributed to attention-seeking, social communication, or even signs of deeply rooted stress.
Flavors, Smells, Attention-Seeking, and Communication
It’s said that the simplest explanation is often the right one, and that’s no truer than with the habit of foot licking. Sometimes, your dog licks your feet simply because there is something attractive about the flavor. There is a bacterium called Proteus, which can result in a particular smell often likened to that of corn chips. Dogs may be attracted to this smell in combination with the salty flavor of sweat, especially if they’ve been fed salty snacks in the past.
Sometimes a dog may lick your feet because they enjoy the taste of a morsel you’ve stepped in. You may not even realize that you stepped in something sticky and sweet, but the millions of olfactory sensors in your dog’s nose will alert him to the presence of a particular flavor, and your pup will be determined to soak up every last drop.
The Wonderful World of Smell
Speaking of those olfactory sensors, it is worth mentioning that a dog can derive far more from smells than humans can. For your dog, the smells of your feet are a road map showing her exactly what you’ve been up to during the day. If you’re away from your dog for long hours, your pup may sniff or even lick your feet because you’ve picked up an interesting aroma that she hasn’t smelled on you before. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s impossible to resist for your dog.
Pay Attention to Me
Another explanation for persistent foot licking may be that you have reinforced the behavior without even realizing it. Dogs are social creatures, and they crave their human companions’ attention above all else. If you spend a lot of time focused on television, a phone, or a book rather than your canine companion, your dog may try various techniques to grab your attention.
Dogs will usually start with staring to catch your eye, and if that doesn’t work, they may move on to pawing or nosing behavior. This, in dog language, means “Hey! You! I’m right here; look at me!” If these behaviors don’t work, they may try another trick of the trade: foot licking.
This one usually gets the job done, as the ticklish feeling will result in you giggling or shrieking. When you yelp and pull away, the dog has your attention. Next time, your dog may skip the steps that don’t work, and go straight to foot licking. Voila: a new behavior has just been learned.
Social Licking in the Canine World
Another often overlooked reason for habitual foot-licking may stretch back eons to a dog’s deeply programmed social hierarchy. Dogs are social animals, and their social structure is actually quite complicated. While there is competing research about the hierarchy of this social structure, it is generally agreed upon that dogs are either dominant or submissive, and licking is a clear example of submissive behavior.
We may associate submission with a form of weakness, but that’s not how it works for dogs. A dog is perfectly happy being the submissive entity in a relationship as it provides a sense of security and protection. Licking behavior may be your dog saying, “Hey, you’re the boss, and I’m OK with that.” In such cases, a quick scratch of the ribs or ear rub is all the acknowledgment your dog needs: the submissiveness is recognized, and your dog is happy.
Stress and Licking Behaviors
While foot licking is often just a doggy way of tasting, exploring, or communicating, there are instances when licking behavior is a symptom of a deeper-seated problem. Some canine psychologists believe that persistent licking is a way for a dog to cope with a high-stress situation. This may stem from a puppy’s interactions with its mother during infancy.
Female dogs lick their puppies to remove dirt, clean up after mealtimes, and even prompt a bowel response when the puppy is very young. Because dogs are social animals, puppies learn to feel calm and relaxed during one of these “bathing” sessions from mom. A dog may come to associate licking with feeling a release from stress, and chemical tests have even shown that licking behavior can release the hormone serotonin, which causes happy and contended feelings in mammals.
How to Tell if Your Dog Is Stress Licking
If your dog licks your feet in one spot over and over again, or if you find your dog continually licking her paws, this may be a sign that the behavior is related to stress. You can help your dog by identifying possible stress-inducers and eliminating them or providing a helpful distraction for her. Does your dog only lick your feet at a certain time? Does the licking occur after a long absence? Does your pup like to lick your toes when there are loud noises in the background?
Identifying the root cause of the stress will help you take action. Once the stress-causing stimulus has been removed, the stress-relieving behavior will often stop, as there is no reason for the dog to relax with the repeated licking. If no stress-causing stimulus can be found, you may need to consult your veterinarian to see if your dog is experiencing internal discomfort or stress caused by a chemical imbalance rather than an external contributing factor.
The Licking Must Stop
Even if you’ve determined that your dog is licking your feet out of affection, the desire to acknowledge social hierarchy, or simply a curiosity about where you went when you disappeared for eight hours, sometimes the habit becomes too much. If your dog’s licking behaviors are problematic, there are ways to redirect the behavior and train your dog when and if it’s OK to lick.
The key to training your dog to stop licking feet is to rely on positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement. Examples of negative reinforcement may include shouting or scolding the dog, swatting or pushing the dog, or kicking the dog’s nose away from your feet. Negative reinforcement has been repeatedly proven to be ineffective in training dogs, and it can also lead to an unhealthy dynamic between you and your beloved pet.
Why Can’t I Just Say No?
A firm “no” to your dog seems like a natural response to unwanted behavior. After all, as humans, we’re taught to communicate “no” when we want someone to stop doing something. However, dogs aren’t people, and this type of negative reinforcement can confuse our canine friends.
When you tell a dog “no,” they may not always associate the negative reinforcement with the behavior you want to stop. A dog may think you are angry because of their presence in the same room with them or upset with their proximity. That’s not true, of course, but it’s impossible to know with certainty whether your pup is recognizing which behavior is being corrected. Positive reinforcement, however, corrects a specific behavior and helps your dog learn how to adopt acceptable behaviors.
How to Positively Reinforce Non-Licking Behaviors
To begin, wait for your dog to start licking your feet on his own accord. Don’t force your feet into your dog’s face, as this will prompt licking behavior, and he won’t understand why he is being asked to lick your feet and then immediately redirected. Instead, as soon as your dog begins licking your feet on his own, redirect his attention to a favorite toy.
When your dog abandons your savory toes for this new toy, praise your dog and provide him with generous pats and maybe a small treat or two. Then, go back to doing whatever you were doing before the dog started licking. If the dog returns to your feet for some additional stealthy licks, perform the same redirecting behavior, praising your dog again for focusing on the toy rather than your toes.
The best way for positive reinforcement to work is to be consistent with the correction. Instruct other housemates or guests to positively reinforce alternative behavior when your dog begins licking their toes. With persistence and patience, your dog will learn that foot licking is not the best way to get your attention.
Additionally, if the licking behavior is related to stress, then your dog will gradually derive stress-relieving power from playing with toys rather than licking your toes. Because you provide calming pats and pets during the positive reinforcement process, your dog will be soothed while he is playing with the distraction toy. Over time, the toy itself will offer relief from stressful feelings, and the licking behavior will be forgotten.
A Kiss on the Toes
Whatever the reason for a dog’s tendency to run a sloppy, wet tongue over a human’s exposed foot, it’s likely behavior that dog owners will have to get used to. The reason may be perfectly natural or caused by some underlying issue, and the behavior can be gently corrected to cut down on its prevalence, but if you’re a dog owner you know: canine kisses are unavoidable, and sometimes it’s easier just to let them sneak a few.