With somewhat compensated vision compared to humans, our dogs rely heavily on their four other senses for daily interactions with their humans and with their environment- and that includes taste!
They’ll lick you to show affection and use their teeth to pick things up off the floor. They chew on their favorite toys and sometimes even things they shouldn’t be chewing on. None of this is strange or weird behavior. After all, it’s the only way your dog can perform such actions.
But things can get a little confusing when dogs focus on licking specific items or surfaces. For instance, floor licking.
Dogs lick the floor for various reasons and while scavenging is the most common explanation, it could also be related to self-soothing during stress or anxiety, compulsive behavior, a lack of mental or physical stimulation, or even medical problems leading to excessive licking syndrome (ELS).
Less likely, but still possible reasons, include cognitive decline from aging, neurological conditions, and in some rare cases nutritional imbalances.
I’ll take a look at each reason and how you can figure out which explanation is the most likely for your pup.
1. Scavenging and Exploratory Behavior
Scavenging and exploratory behaviors will be the most likely explanation for most floor licking pups. This behavior is rooted in a dog’s natural instinct to scavenge for food and explore their environment. It also gets positively reinforced every time they find a scrap of your dinner!
I know, this explanation probably isn’t a big surprise to most dog owners, and if you see your pup licking floors where food is often present, like the kitchen or dining room, then this becomes even more likely.
Not only do dogs enjoy a little scrap now and then, but they also have about 1/6th of the amount of taste buds that we do which means they like to really get in there to capture the taste. This behavior can appear to start suddenly if you change the types of meals you make, have messy guests like children, or even change the cleaning products you use on your floors.
If the floor licking is accompanied by other exploratory behaviors, such as sniffing around corners and objects, you’re probably looking at normal curiosity and occasional floor licking is normal. However, if licking occurs for more than a few minutes or several times a day, it’s worth a closer look, and other explanations like anxiety or compulsion could be at play.
The act of licking can be a calming activity and releases feel-good endorphins for dogs. Think of it as a coping mechanism for your dog to deal with their stress or anxiety similar to the way people chew their nails or tap their feet when stressed.
If your dog tends to lick the floor during thunderstorms, fireworks, or in new and unfamiliar environments, it’s likely a way for them to self-soothe. Also, notice if the licking is accompanied by other signs of stress or anxiety, such as panting, pacing, or whining.
Providing a safe, comforting environment and using techniques like desensitization and counter-conditioning can help. For example, gradually exposing your dog to the source of their anxiety while offering positive reinforcement, can significantly reduce stress-induced behaviors like floor licking. If you’re not sure how to do this, you can reach out to one of our dog trainers for free or drop a comment below.
3. Compulsive Behavior and Excessive Lick Syndrome (ELS)
Compulsive Behavior and excessive licking of surfaces (ELS) represent a less common, yet relevant, reason why dogs may lick the floor. These behaviors go beyond normal exploratory or scavenging instincts and are characterized by repetitive actions that the dog feels compelled to perform- including excessive licking of floors, objects, or themselves.
ELS, specifically, is a condition where dogs repetitively lick surfaces due to environmental stressors, underlying anxiety, or medical conditions. It’s a way for them to cope with their discomfort or stress.
To distinguish ELS or compulsive behavior from normal licking, look for patterns like licking in the absence of food smells or outside of feeding areas. If your dog is licking the same spot on the floor repeatedly, especially in a low-stimulus environment, this could be a sign.
Another indicator is the duration and frequency of the licking. If your dog licks the floor for extended periods or repeatedly returns to licking after being distracted or stopped, this could point towards a compulsive behavior or ELS. This video shows a great example of compulsive licking behavior (which turned out to be anxiety-related):
4. Attention Seeking Behavior and Boredom
Dogs are social animals and crave attention from their human companions. If they feel neglected or bored, they may resort to behaviors like floor licking to get your attention. It’s their way of saying, “Hey, look at me!”
One key sign that floor licking is attention-seeking or due to boredom is if it occurs in your presence and seems to intensify when you’re not paying attention to your dog. For instance, if your dog starts licking the floor when you’re busy with something else and stops as soon as you engage with them, they’re likely seeking your attention.
Another indicator is the overall activity level of your dog. A dog that doesn’t get enough physical or mental exercise can exhibit behaviors like excessive licking as a way to cope with their unspent energy and boredom.
In some cases, you may even inadvertently reinforce this attention-seeking behavior without realizing it. For example, if you consistently respond to your dog’s floor licking by giving them attention, even if it’s just to tell them to stop, they learn that licking the floor results in your engagement. This unintentional reinforcement makes the behavior more likely to occur in the future and floor licking can turn into a sort of habit.
It’s important to assess your dog’s daily routine. If your pup isn’t getting enough mental or physical stimulation, consider adding more exercises (even just a walk around the neighborhood) or introducing puzzle toys which are a great way to engage your dog’s brain and mouth!
5. Dental Disease
Dental disease is common and some studies estimate that 80% of dogs over 3 have some level of dental disease– my experience seeing patients lines up with those studies. However, licking the floor in direct response to dental disease is a bit more unusual to see so it’s best to consider some of the other explanations first.
To determine if dental discomfort is the reason behind your dog’s floor licking, look for other signs of oral discomfort. These might include bad breath, a visible buildup of tartar, drooling more than usual, or reluctance to eat hard foods. Also, watch out for your dog pawing at their mouth or showing signs of discomfort when eating or drinking. Excessive drooling can also be a sign of oral pain.
If you notice any of these additional symptoms along with floor licking, it’s a good idea to get your dog’s teeth and mouth examined by a veterinarian.
6. Gastrointestinal Problems and Environmental Lick Syndrome (ELS)
We’re looking at ELS again, but this time in the context of gastrointestinal disorders which have been found to cause excessive licking behavior in dogs. One study looked at 19 dogs with ELS and found that 74% of them had some kind of GI condition ranging from chronic pancreatitis, delayed gastric emptying, and giardiasis.
After treatment, 59% showed significant improvement in ELS behavior, and 53% completely stopped licking. The resolution of ELS after treatment makes the correlation between GI issues and excessive licking even stronger.
However, it’s critical to remember that these are dogs with ELS, which is licking well beyond the pup that’s just curiously hunting down scraps so don’t immediately assume that your floor licking dog is suffering from a severe GI condition.
7. Physical Pain
Licking isn’t just a form of self-soothing behavior for stress and anxiety- some dogs may lick, including floors, when they’re dealing with physical pain as well. This can be pain from dental disease, arthritis, injury, or as we’ve already seen, gastrointestinal problems.
Dogs might lick the floor as a way to distract themselves from the discomfort they’re feeling. It’s a subtle sign, but one that shouldn’t be overlooked. Again, you’re likely to see other changes in your dog’s behavior along with the extra licking.
8. Neurological Conditions
Neurological issues in dogs can manifest in various ways, and unusual behaviors like floor licking might be a sign. However, floor licking won’t be the only symptom, and unless you’re seeing other behavior changes or concerning symptoms like disorientation and lack of coordination it’s less like the reason is primarily neurological.
9. Cognitive Decline
In older dogs, cognitive dysfunction, like dementia in humans, can lead to various behavioral changes, including repetitive actions like floor licking. These dogs might also display confusion, disrupted sleep patterns, and changes in their interaction with family members.
It’s estimated that cognitive dysfunction affects nearly 14% of dogs aged 8 and older, and more subtle behavior changes like licking new objects can certainly be a part of this change.
10. Nutritional Deficiencies
Nutritional deficiencies are relatively uncommon in dogs fed a diet of commercial dog food. However, dogs that are fed homemade diets, limited ingredient diets, or dogs that are suffering from a health condition could have nutritional issues that are causing them to lick the floor.
Still, this is much less likely an explanation, and dogs that are deficient will show other symptoms like poor coat quality, skin problems, lethargy, or weight loss. It’s also more likely for dogs in this category to lick specific floor surfaces like concrete rather than your kitchen floor. In other words, it’s highly unlikely that floor licking will be the only sign of nutritional imbalance so this isn’t the first explanation to rule out.
How To Change The Behavior
Remember, no amount of positive reinforcement training or conditioning will help if your dog is suffering from a health condition so if you suspect health problems, start with your veterinarian first.
But if behavior explanations make more sense for your pup, we’ll walk through a simple approach that uses observation, redirection, reinforcement, and enrichment to change the behavior.
Start by carefully observing your dog’s behavior and trying to figure out what happens just before the floor-licking behavior starts. Is it in response to specific environmental cues like food residues, during moments of stress, or when your dog is left alone?
In some cases, you can stop here and simply change whatever trigger is prompting your dog to lick the floor. But if things aren’t so clear-cut, we’ll move on to redirecting the behavior.
Once you’ve identified the triggers, use redirection to guide your dog toward more appropriate behaviors by introducing an alternative activity that’s equally fulfilling. A licking mat, infused with flavors or smeared with a soft treat, can redirect their licking behavior more appropriately.
This strategy uses differential reinforcement – reinforcing a more desirable behavior while extinguishing the unwanted one.
Consistency is vital. Whenever your dog shifts from floor licking to the activity you’ve redirected them to, use positive reinforcement. This could be in the form of treats, verbal praise, or physical affection. It’s essential to reward the alternative behavior immediately!
In some cases, like the use of a licking mat, the alternative behavior will be its own reward and your dog will be happy to enjoy peanut butter instead of the floor.
Finally, enrich your dog’s environment to address potential underlying causes like boredom or anxiety. Increase physical exercise, introduce interactive toys, and engage in regular training sessions. These activities not only provide mental stimulation but also help in expending pent-up energy that might be contributing to the floor-licking behavior.
Understanding canine behavior isn’t always straightforward. Whether it’s the surprisingly complex meaning of a tail that stops wagging when you pet your pup or obsessively licking the floor context is critical to understanding our dogs.
Licking the floor can be perfectly normal behavior for dogs. But when this behavior becomes excessive and your dog is licking the floor compulsively for long periods, then it’s something to start worrying about.
Always keep an eye out for unusual patterns or changes that accompany the floor lick (or any other licking) which will help you figure out which explanation makes the most sense for your furry friend!