It’s one of the trademark signs of canine affection: Big, slobbery kisses. Whether you’re a dog owner yourself or a dog lover, you likely know the experience of going up to say hello to a furry companion and being greeted by enthusiastic licking. But why is that? What makes dogs lick their human family members so much?
Keep reading for this and more questions about our furry companions decoded:
Why Does My Dog Lick Me So Much?
Dogs are known for their affectionate behavior: Helicopter tails, jumping on us to say hello, and licking are some of the many ways they show their love. Licking behavior might be their favorite, though. From giving us a slobbery kiss on the cheek to frantically licking our faces when we come home, it’s clear that dogs love to lick.
But why do they do it?
Licking is a behavior inherited from wild dogs. Adult dogs and puppies lick for many different reasons, including showing affection and for attention-seeking purposes. It could also be a sign of submission or to show their respect. However, the overarching reason dogs lick is to communicate.
When dogs lick, it often conveys a message to other dogs or to humans. For example, a mother dog will lick her puppies to both clean them and show her affection. Similarly, a dog may lick its owner as a way of saying hello, as a sign of affection, or to signal that it’s time for dinner.
But dogs don’t just lick other dogs and humans. They also lick objects, such as toys or furniture. There are many reasons for this; one thought is that it’s a way for dogs to learn more about the world around them. By licking an object, a dog can get a sense of its texture, taste, and even its scent.
Licking can be a self-soothing behavior for dogs that releases endorphins. Just like humans, dogs can get stressed or have separation anxiety, and licking can be a way for them to calm themselves down.
For example, if a dog is feeling anxious, it may lick its paws or lick the air to relieve the anxiety. This type of licking often occurs when their owner leaves for extended periods of time (separation anxiety) or when exposed to new environments. (Licking paws might also be a symptom of allergies which will require a vet visit.)
When To Talk to a Vet
Not all licking is normal or healthy. Excessive licking, or licking that is accompanied by other symptoms, such as vomiting or diarrhea, can be a sign of a health problem. If your dog is licking excessively, talk to your DVM to determine the underlying cause and to get appropriate treatment.
How Can I Tell If My Dog’s Licking Is Normal Or Not?
If you’re concerned about your dog’s licking behavior, pay attention to the context clues that might help you figure out why this dog behavior is occurring. For instance, are they licking primarily as a greeting to other dogs, their pet parents, and other people?
In this case, it’s most likely a standard sign of affection. Are they fond of licking your exposed skin, such as on your legs and arms? Human skin is slightly salty, so perhaps your pet is simply enjoying the taste of extra salt.
Take note of when and where your dog is excessively licking and similar behavioral issues, and use context clues to determine whether their behavior is normal or cause for concern. In the case of the latter, definitely bring up the issue to your vet or an animal behaviorist. They’ll be able to take a look at your pup and figure out what’s going on.
Sometimes, licking might become a social issue for your dog — after all, not everyone enjoys being covered in doggy slobber. In that case, reach out to dog trainers or behaviorists. With some treats, tips, and positive reinforcement, qualified experts can help guide your family in the right direction.
Caring for an Anxious Dog
If you think separation anxiety or stress is a possible reason for your dog’s excessive licking, there are a few things you can do to help. Dogs can become anxious in new or unfamiliar environments; they need a place where they can feel safe and secure. This could be a crate, a bed, or a quiet room where they can retreat to when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Creating a safe environment that your dog has access to is step one for building a sense of safety and security.
If your dog is anxious around loud noises or new people, perhaps try practicing desensitization to help them slowly overcome this fear. With this, positive reinforcement is critical and expert advice is usually recommended.
Gradually expose them to their triggers in a slow and safe way, such as by having one new person over at a time and rewarding them with praise and treats throughout the whole encounter. This can slowly cause them to associate new people (or any other trigger) with positive experiences, such as treats.
Interpreting Your Dog’s Body Language
Licking behavior can provide insight into your dog’s mood and state of mind. But other body language signs can help you understand how your doggy is feeling, too.
Understanding your dog’s body language is an integral part of being a responsible pet owner. There are many ways that dogs communicate through body language.
The way they move and position themselves, the way they wag their tails, and even the way they make eye contact can provide clues to what they’re thinking. By learning to interpret your dog’s body language, you can better understand and address their needs, which is step number one in having a happy and healthy pet.
One of the things to look for when interpreting your dog’s body language is posture. Sometimes their posture is clear:
A confident dog will stand tall with their tail held high, ears perked up, and eyes focused. A scared or anxious dog may crouch low to the ground with their tail tucked between their legs, ears flattened against the head, and their eyes wide and fearful.
Other times, the tells in posture may be more subtle and less obvious. Every dog is unique. By keeping an eye on your dog’s moods and postures in various environments, you can start to get a feel for your puppy’s unique body language and how to interpret it.
Another critical aspect of your dog’s body language is the tail. In fact, your dog’s tail might be the fastest giveaway to what they’re thinking and feeling at any given time.
A wagging tail is often thought to be a sign of happiness, but it may be a bit more complicated than that. A wagging tail can indicate a range of emotions, from excitement and happiness to fear and aggression. Interpreting your dog’s tail position requires you to look at the whole picture.
For example, a happy dog may wag their tail vigorously with their whole body, while a fearful dog may wag their tail slowly and tentatively. Pay attention to your pup, and you’ll soon learn what their different tail movements and positions may mean. Your dog’s way of telling you something may not be what you expect.
Ears and Eyes
In addition to posture and tail wagging, you can learn a lot about a dog’s emotional state by watching their ears and eyes. A relaxed dog will have their ears perked up and their eyes soft and gentle. A tense or aggressive dog may have their ears flattened against their head, and their eyes narrowed.
By paying attention to your dog’s ears and eyes, you can get a sense of how they’re feeling and whether they’re likely to be friendly or aggressive.
It’s important to remember that you can’t always rely on body language to interpret your dog’s emotions. Some dogs may have atypical body language due to a medical condition or past trauma, while others may be more tricky to read due to their individual personality.
Spend time with them, observe them closely, and learn what their unique signals mean. Dogs are incredibly smart, and throughout this process, they will likely learn how to better communicate their needs with you and their other pack members, too. (They’re called man’s best friend for a reason!)
Learning To Speak a New Tongue? The AskVet Experts Can Help.
Whether we’re talking about licking, tail-wagging, or any other aspect of your dog’s body language, with some time and practice, you’ll soon be able to understand your dog like a pro. Every dog is different, and the best thing you can do to understand what your dog is trying to communicate is to pay attention to their specific behaviors and needs.
However, dogs and people don’t share much of a common language. Besides some commands and words like “treat,” your pets and you will need a translating dictionary from time to time.
The Certified Pet Lifestyle Coaches™ at AskVet can be that dictionary. After joining AskVet, sign up for a virtual appointment with a CPLC™ who can guide you through your animal family members’ behaviors and quirks. Cats, fish, reptiles, dogs, and more — we can work with them all!