Dog licking the air

Q. Why does my dog lick the air? She does it for hours.

A. There are various reasons your dog may be licking the air, but the fact that she does it for long periods of time is suggestive of a possible compulsive disorder. However, because there may be other causes for this behavior, including health concerns such as dental pain, nausea, gastrointestinal discomfort, seizures and canine cognitive dysfunction, you should first visit your veterinarian for a proper diagnosis.

Preparing for the Vet Visit

You can help your veterinarian get to the root of the problem by providing a history of the licking behavior, including when it first appeared, how long it has been going on, specific situations where it’s most likely to occur, how long the episodes last and how your dog acts after an episode. In addition, it can be helpful to videotape the specific behavior; if possible, film your dog when you’re not around, to see if the behavior takes place all the time. Some dogs only perform repetitive behaviors around humans, because those behaviors have become conditioned responses. It will also help if you can describe the responses of people in your house to the behavior.

Your vet will need to know about your pet’s home life as well. Honestly assess the amount of exercise, mental stimulation and interaction your dog gets on a daily basis, as well as any training or punishment that is used in your home.

Finally, tell your vet about other areas of stress in your pet’s life (or yours) that may be contributing to the situation, such as a new baby, a move, or an illness in the family.

Diagnosing a Compulsive Disorder

Get your dog to the vet as soon as possible; the less time she has to repeat this behavior, the better the outlook might be for treatment. Your veterinarian will perform a full physical exam to look for medical causes of the licking. Diagnostic testing may also be recommended. Once medical explanations have been ruled out, he may diagnose your pet with a compulsive disorder, which is often treated with a combination of medication, environmental management and training.

Compulsive behaviors are marked by high repetition over extended periods of time and often do not seem to fulfill a noticeable purpose. Sometimes the behavior is triggered by conflict or stress, but it may also originate from a medical cause such as environmental allergies, which can often lead to licking a certain area of the body repeatedly. Other times the original cause of the behavior is less easily identified, although there may be a genetic predisposition that makes certain animals more likely to develop compulsive behaviors.

Regardless of the trigger, over time the behavior starts to occur more often and in a wider range of contexts; in other words, the behavior may originally occur only when your dog is highly aroused, but may gradually begin to appear in lower arousal situations. In certain cases, the compulsive behavior may be interrupted only by eating, drinking or sleeping. Compulsive behavior not only interferes with an animal’s normal routine, it also has a dramatic effect on the human-animal bond.

Treating a Compulsive Disorder

Punishment-based training is not appropriate for dogs exhibiting compulsive behaviors. Punishment, particularly when inconsistently administered, adds to your dog’s stress and increases her anxiety, which escalates the compulsive behavior. Instead, a command-response-reward training structure is recommended for dogs with compulsive disorders, to provide consistency in their interactions with people.

Increasing the mental and physical stimulation your pet receives during the day can help decrease repetitive behavior. Providing consistent exercise each day, including regular walks that allow ample time to sniff and investigate and interact with other dogs (for more social canines), can promote your pet’s well-being. Doggy sports, such as agility, flyball, or simple games like fetch can be productive outlets for extra energy and stress. A variety of frequently rotated food puzzles can also be employed during the times of the day your dog is most likely to exhibit repetitive behavior.

Removing or reducing any stress-inducing stimuli in your dog’s environment can help decrease her anxiety, which in turn can decrease the repetitive behavior. In some situations, the removal of the stimulus may not be possible (such as in the case of a new baby at home), which may mean that your dog will need to be desensitized and counter-conditioned to help change her underlying emotion and eradicate the behavior.

It’s important not to punish a repetitive behavior. Instead, teach an alternative behavior that is incompatible with the repetitive behavior — for example, a down stay where your dog sits with her head between her paws as a substitute for the licking. This replacement behavior should be heavily rewarded. When your dog begins licking the air, interrupt her with a noise or movement, and redirect her to the replacement behavior or to another productive activity, such as searching for scattered kibble on the lawn. Finally, medication can be a valuable tool for managing compulsive disorders and may be recommended by veterinarians, in combination with environmental changes and training, as part of a successful treatment program.