How to Calm an Anxious Dog With Licking and Sniffing — Enrichment 101

How to Calm an Anxious Dog With Licking and Sniffing — Enrichment 101

One of the best ways to calm an anxious or stressed dog is to get them to engage in natural, relaxed behaviours like licking or sniffing. As we talked about in our introduction to enrichment, toys like lick-mats can help dogs that suffer from anxiety or have other behavioural problems by providing them with an outlet for their mental energy and redirecting their attention. Here’s how it works.

How does licking help calm my anxious dog? 

Licking starts when puppies are tiny. It’s how their mothers clean them and how they communicate with her that they’re hungry: They lick around her mouth to let her know. 

As dogs age, licking continues to be one of the ways they explore the world around them. It even releases endorphins (basically, happy chemicals) in their brains when they do it. This is one of the reasons we see dogs excessively licking an area that’s sore or injured, for example, if they’ve been stung by a bee.

(The endorphins released by licking can even be addictive. Although it’s rare, in practice I’ve encountered dogs who display excessive licking as a coping mechanism for anxiety.)

For most dogs though, preparing a few lick-mats to give them something to do that will release endorphins s a surefire way to make stressful situations easier for both of you.

How does sniffing help calm my anxious dog?

Sniffing helps in a similar way to licking but with other bonuses. I compare sniffing and nose-work exercises to reading a great book—it doesn’t require much physical energy, but it’s so immersive that it makes your brain feel great and calms you down. 

Sniffing mimics natural behaviours, including foraging for food, communicating with other dogs, and investigating new environments. (It’s basically storytelling for dogs.) There are lots of ways you can include it in your dog’s daily life: Going to novel places, playing “sniffy fetch”, and hiding food around the house. 

Extremely nervous or anxious dogs, however, often benefit from snuffle mats. These provide all of the advantages of sniffing around new areas while in the safe surroundings of their own home.

Snuffle mats, as the name suggests, are mats with layers of fabric, tassels, and lots of places to hide food and treats that encourage your dog to sniff around and search them out. 

Snuffle mats help with the hyperactive behaviour that we sometimes associate with anxiety—like pacing, excessive panting and general fidgeting—without requiring you to take your dog out for another walk during the day. Sometimes these walks can be a source of anxiety for under-socialised dogs or dogs who have just moved to a new home, so replacing them with something less intense can be highly beneficial. 

If you have a reactive dog, resources like SniffSpot allow owners to rent a private dog park to allow their dog to explore a new environment off-leash, complete with loads of wonderful sniffs. It’s currently only available in the US but it’s a super idea that will hopefully expand soon. 

Bing’s Favourite: The Lickimat Wobble 

calm an anxious dog with a lickimat wobble

The Lickimat Wobble is Bing’s favourite lick-toy.

It’s a bowl that you can smear peanut butter or other tasty treats on and let him have at it. The unstable surface of the bowl adds more challenge, and it turns inside out for easy cleaning. 

During the last hot spell, I made him a “fishbowl” with two dried sprats in water, froze it, and it entertained him for ages! 

I love this bowl but wouldn’t trust it with dogs that chew things aggressively. We had to create boundaries with both dogs to explain that these toys are not for chewing. Remove these toys as soon as your dogs are finished, so they don’t get any destructive ideas. 

Upsides

Dishwasher, freezer and microwave-safe. 

Easy to turn inside out to clean. 

More engaging than flat lick-mats.

Downsides 

Hard to balance in the freezer when full of liquid.

Not the most durable.

Gunther’s Favourite – The Lickimat Slomo 

likimat slomo gunthers favourite

The Lickimat Slomo is fabulous for G as it’s made for those dogs that might accidentally nibble on their lick-mats to get to the last bits of food. It has a combination of small squares that are great to smear wet or raw food in and the lick mat quadrants made to massage the tongue and produce those lovely calming endorphins. 

The Slomo can be used for feeding meals as a slow feeder, but I use it as a licking enrichment tool—Gunther just wouldn’t slow down enough for it to work as a feeder. 

Upsides

Better for a variety of different foods.

Dishwasher, freezer and microwave safe.

Hard to flip over.

Downsides 

Grey rubber on the inside is nibble-able.

Our Snuffle Mat of Choice

gunther and snuffle mat

Both boys use the same snuffle mat. There are lots of different types available; we got ours from Amazon, but there are a few small companies on Etsy that have beautiful handmade ones.

Always read the reviews of any snuffle mats you want to buy to gauge other customers’ experiences with them. Some are smaller than they appear, easily shredded or can’t be machine washed—not ideal!

While buying the best product is important, teaching your dog how to interact with the mat appropriately is what will prolong its life. Discourage your dog from biting the tassels with a firm “NO” and calmly praise the sniffing behaviour. Don’t leave your dog unsupervised with the mat, or else you will find them whipping it around their heads to get the treats out. 

Upsides

Machine-washable.

Lots of different snuffle-able compartments.

Packs away nicely.

Downsides 

Easily flipped.

Requires supervision.


Licking and sniffing help anxious dogs by providing a focused outlet for naturally calming behaviours. With a calm, positive training regime, they can help nervous or easily-stressed dogs come out of their shells and lead happy and fulfilled lives.