Just like humans, dogs can develop an oral fixation which means that they are stuck with an obsession of engaging in behaviors involving oral stimulation that persists past puppy hood.
However, unlike humans, dogs won't be stuck smoking, biting their nails or drinking alcoholic drinks. When dogs develop an oral fixation, it often entails chewing and licking inappropriately, a behavior that can often have annoying repercussions that can negatively affect the human-animal companion bond.
Normal Puppy Stage
Puppies, just like human children, go through an oral fixation stage during which they are very prone to mouthing objects. This is a normal part of a puppy's development as the puppy explores and investigates his surrounding environment with his mouth.
During this time, puppies are often attracted to eating feces, which can become a problem if this normal curiosity is addressed incorrectly.
It's best to encourage the puppy's oral investigation towards appropriate items such as chew toys and food dispensing puzzles.
If you punish the puppy or give him excessive attention when he engages in the poop-eating behavior, there are chances that the behavior will be reinforced, warns Donna Spector, a board-certified veterinarian specializing in Internal Medicine.
Stuck in a Phase
As mentioned, certain happenings throughout a dog's life can cause a dog's oral fixation to persist past puppy hood.
According to Stephanie Hedges, Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB), frustration may derive when natural reflexes aren't allowed to take place.
For instance, puppies who are prevented from suckling naturally may develop abnormalities such as oral fixations in adult life, she explains in her book: "Practical Canine Behaviour: For Veterinary Nurses and Technicians."
Compulsive licking and sucking can therefore happen when puppies are weaned too early or in puppies who are orphaned and bottle-fed at an early age.
On top of that, consider genetics, Golden retrievers are very oral dogs by nature considering that they have a retrieving heritage. "From pups to senior, most goldens love to have something in their mouths," observes Nona Kilgore Bauer in her book "The Golden Retriever."
Doberman pinschers are notorious for having a history of blanket and flank sucking that may originate from an insatiable suckling drive. Flank and blanket sucking behaviors tend to occur prior to sexual maturity and they seem to precipitated by anxiety or stress.
Soon, the behavior puts roots and starts taking place even in the absence of obvious stressors, explains Dr. Nicholoas Dodman, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.
Did you know? Compulsive licking behaviors are challenging to overcome since dogs start engaging in these behaviors as a coping mechanism, basically a way to reduce stress. Engaging in these behaviors causes an increase in endorphins in the brain and therefore such chemical release acts to reinforce pleasure for the behavior, creating a vicious cycle.
Before Things Get Out of Hand
When a behavior shows signs of starting to get out of hand, it's important to nip it in the bud before it puts roots and becomes established.
As the saying goes "practice makes perfect." When dogs get to rehearse problem behaviors over and over they consolidate and become more difficult to eradicate.
If you therefore notice that your dog suckles, mouths, licks, chews or performs any other behavior more often than normal, it's in your dog's best interest to get help right away.
Tips for Curbing a Dog's Oral Fixation
Following are some tips for puppies or dogs who have just started manifesting signs of oral fixation.
See Your Veterinarian
Start with a medical check up. A new interest in sucking, mouthing and chewing behavior may stem from a medical problem.
A dental problem, gastro-intestinal upset, neurological disorder or pain due to a joint or spinal problem, may cause a renewed interest in mouthing stuff. Pica, the eating of non-edible items such as dirt, rocks or underwear, can also be caused by underlying medical conditions.
Provide Puppies With Things to Chew
On top of going through a stage during which puppies mouth to explore, around 4 months of age puppies are teething and they may seek, out things to chew to get relief.
It's important to provide puppies with acceptable, age appropriate chewing items during this time, explains veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker in the book "Your Dog: The Owner's Manual: Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises, and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy Dog."
A wet rag that is twisted and then frozen, can provide a soothing "chew toy" for teething pups. Another option is to fill a Kong with peanut butter and chilling it.
Keep Your Dog Entertained
Provide active dogs with more exercise, training and mental stimulation. Boredom may trigger the onset of undesired behaviors and these may include the development of an oral fixation. Providing an enriched environment with chew toys and interactive feeders is a must with such dogs.
De-stress Your Dog
Don't dismiss the effects of stress too! A stressed dog may seek out mouthing and chewing inappropriate items as a way to relieve tension. DAP (Dog Appeasement Pheromone) diffusers, DAP collars and calming supplements can help your dog de-stress.
Redirect to Alternate Activities
Redirect inappropriate mouthing behaviors to alternate activities. Offer activities that are engaging and rewarding and capable of competing against the undesirable behavior.
it's important to redirect displaced, self-calming nursing behaviors directed towards inappropriate objects to more acceptable ones such as puzzle toys stuffed with tempting doggie treats.
Alternate behaviors, other than the inappropriate suckling, should be rewarded with treats and praise.
Avoid Getting Puppies Too Early
It may be tempting to open your heart and home to a young puppy, but doing so is counterproductive. See your State laws on when you can bring home a puppy.
Breeders should avoid weaning puppies too early. Should a puppy be weaned or lose his mother very early, he may start suckling objects feel as he seeks comfort, just like a thumb-sucking child.
See a Professional
Moderate to severe cases may require the intervention of a dog behavior professional to institute behavior modification, possibly accompanied by prescription medications to break the vicious cycle.
- Creature Comforts, Why Does My Dog Eat Poop? by Dr. Donna Spector, retrieved from the web on June 16th, 2016
- Golden Retriever, by Nona Kilgore Bauer, Hispano Europea Editorial; 3 edizione (13 novembre 2006)
- Your Dog: The Owner's Manual: Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises, and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy DogHardcover–Marty Becker (Author), Gina Spadafori, Grand Central Life & Style (April 15, 2011)
- Practical Canine Behaviour: For Veterinary Nurses and Technicians, by Stephanie Hedges, CABI Publishing; 1 edition (11 July 2014)