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Why Do Dogs Lick and What Does it Mean?

Updated: Feb 19

My parents have a wonderful Labrador named Lucy who I love very much. Back when I still lived at my parents house it was not rare to wake up with Lucy in mid air, tongue out as she jumped on my bed before proceeding to try to lick the skin off my face. There is not much in the world that Lucy loves more than licking her favorite people. That might sound familiar to many of you!

We talk to people all the time who have nicknamed their dog ‘Ninja Tongue.’ Some people love that ‘kiss,’ some tolerate it, some downright hate it and that is all fine! We often get people asking us about the route of their dog’s licking and what it means. Whether it is licking them in the morning, before bed, when they pick them up, or when their dog is licking themselves. These are all great questions and oftentimes, they all mean different things.

Licking starts right away in a dog’s life. Mothers lick their puppies to stimulate them so they start breathing. That is also how they clean their pups after the birth. Not only that, but, as gross as it is to think about, puppies start out licking their mother’s mouths to try to, let’s say, ‘share’ their previous meal with them. This is something that is seen often with wolves, coyotes and foxes after Mom comes home from a hunt, and is the major way that the young gets sustenance. There are a few different reasons you may see your dog lick you or themselves. Here are a few of the more common times our dogs lick, and what they may mean.

You Taste Good! A lot of times after we come in from working outside or exercising, our dogs will lick us. They enjoy that salty taste. The same thing often happens after getting out of the shower or after putting lotion on. As most of us know if there is something that our dog thinks is yummy and edible, they go for it. Often this licking is greeted with laughter or some other type of attention so that behavior continues. If you have a dog that counter surfs you already know, if a dog can find a quick and easy way to get a snack, they are going to take it.

Kiss to Dismiss. Licks from your dog are often thought of as affection, but that is not always the case. It is important to take into consideration everything going on around the licks and what they specifically look like. While a long slow lick often does mean affection, quick, short licks, especially when followed by a stress yawn, or an attempt to create space, is not. This is often called a “Kiss to Dismiss.” Coined by Family Paws Parent Education, the Kiss to Dismiss is often confused for affection, when really it is a plea from your dog to give them space. It is most often seen when we pick up or hug our dogs, sit closely to them when they are not in the mood, and with dog-toddler interactions. Keep an eye out for this one. If you think you see it, give your dog the space they are asking for. It will keep everyone safe and happy.

Self Licking. It is completely normal for our dogs to lick themselves sometimes. Excessive licking can have several causes that may need to be addressed though. It could be either food or environmental allergies causing them to itch, it could be insect bites or healing cuts, scrapes or pain. It could also stem from boredom. If a dog’s needs are not being met, obsessive behaviors can develop to help cope with that boredom. This can also be a symptom of anxiety. Licking often can manifest as a self-soothing behavior for a dog that is dealing with anxiety. The repetitive motion and feeling can help them release some of that anxious energy and to feel better for a short period of time.

Affection. When a dog licks a person they love in the correct circumstances, endorphins release into their bloodstream. This form of affection likely stems from the affection their mother gave them as puppies while cleaning and grooming them. This type of affection is sometimes retained and given to us by our dogs. It is a common thing and mostly harmless, though bacteria can be transferred into open wounds. Whether or not you enjoy this type of affection is totally up to you and is often easily stopped simply by getting up and walking away whenever they start to lick you.

Those are some of the reasons why dogs lick. Whether you love your dog’s licks or hate them, we hope you can move ahead having learned a little about what those licks may mean and have stronger communication with your dog! If you are looking to build a stronger connection with your dog and get their attention even in the face of distractions then be sure to sign up for our free training course, The Distracted Dog. Learn more and get your first lesson delivered right to you inbox by clicking here.

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