When we walk through our front doors after a long day at work and our canines enthusiastically polish our faces with their slick, slobbery tongues, we human types instinctively interpret this behavior as being nothing more than an affectionate greeting. Big fat doggie kisses, if you will. But, as many animal behaviors tend to have obscure or multiple meanings, I wondered if the messages dogs send us via their tongues may be a bit more complex than "OMG! I really, really, really love you!"
So to sate my curiosity, I did a bit of research and came up with the following interesting factoids about why dogs lick others:
• Dogs lick as a way to greet others and to show affection. (Yay, we were right!)
• Dogs use licking to establish hierarchy and keep the peace, with submissive members licking (i.e. grooming) the faces of dominant members to show that they know their place within the pack.
• Puppies lick their mother's mouths to request food, as both wild and domestic dogs naturally regurgitate food for their young pups to eat. This behavior may carry over into adulthood, so if you find your dog licking you around the mouth, it may be a means of telling you that he'd like to be fed.
• Dogs sometime lick as a matter of taste. It turns out that dogs (and other animals) are rather partial to the natural saltiness of human skin. Also, don't overlook the possibility that your pooch may just be lapping up a bit of food that might have somehow gotten onto your skin during your last meal.
• Some dogs use licking as a general means of getting attention--either for play, food, a potty break, or affection. They'll do it all the more if you're the type to encourage the behavior by offering them your face and scratching their backs while cooing something to the effect of "yes, yes sweetie pie. Mommy/daddy loves you too!" If so, you're effectively teaching them that licking is the way to your heart. If that's true, well more power to you and your lick-happy pooch! If not, however, and you've got the sort of dog that licks all faces indiscriminately (yours, guests', the plumber's), best to avoid encouraging the behavior.
• Licking can also be a sign of anxiety and insecurity. If you've ever been a nail biter, then you understand that biting your nails down to the quick, strangely enough, helps to relieve stress. (That is, until, you run out of fingernails to chomp!) Likewise, for an exceptionally nervous dog, licking somehow relieves stress, but at the cost of others around them who may not take kindly to being treated like a living lollipop. So If your dog incessantly licks you, or licks other dogs to the point of causing irritation or outright aggression, you should bring this to the attention of your vet to see what anxieties are at the root of the behavior.
• Licking can signify a medical condition. If your dog is not only excessively licking you and other dogs, but itself and inanimate objects, this could be a sign of a painful medical condition. Mostly likely the culprit is dental or stomach pain. If so, alert your vet immediately!
This isn't an exhaustive list of all the reasons why dogs may feel compelled to lick people, and animal behaviorists seem to learn new things about our furry friends all the time. For the most part, though, it would appear that our assumptions are absolutely correct. In all probability, our dogs are licking us for the reason we think they are--they dig our company and want to tell us just how much.
Have any stories about your own pup's penchant for licking? Comment to let us know!
By Maya M.