Aren’t puppy kisses the best? We like to think that our dogs lick us because they love us, and sometimes that is actually the case. But there are multiple reasons that dogs lick us, each other and … those other places. Find out more about why dogs lick, below.
Why Does My Dog Lick Me?
Dogs lick their humans for all sorts of reasons—to greet them, to bond with them, to soothe them and even to signal that they need some distance from them. The reasons why a dog will lick people varies quite a lot from dog to dog, so if your dog isn’t a licker don’t take it personally. If your dog is an enthusiastic greeter, the chances are you’ll always get some slobber when you walk in the door.
Licking releases a lot of feel-good chemicals (endorphins) into a dog’s system, and that kind of contact does the same for humans, even if we don’t express it in quite the same way. If you’ve ever had your dog start licking you when you’re crying, it’s at least partially meant to be soothing for both of you.
Some of that licking is also tasting, as tears, sweat, food, oils and other things that accumulate on our skin during the course of the day can be very enticing to dogs. And who hasn’t taken advantage of that when we let our dogs lick our sticky fingers clean after eating?
One of the other reasons that dogs will lick us, especially our faces, is known as distancing behavior—in other words, they want us to give them some space. We may think that kissing those beloved noses feels as good to the dog as it does to us, but your dog may not always be on the same page with that. If you go in for a smooch and your dog starts licking your face, the chances are your dog is telling you to back off. Think of it as a low-level warning and treat it as such. Pay attention to what your dog is trying to tell you, and don’t force him to escalate.
Why Do Dogs Lick Each Other?
Most of the same reasons apply for dog-to-dog interactions, though for casual greetings tasting will be more of the focus of activity. Dogs will lick each other’s mouths, ears and butts, but in appropriate interactions that contact will be fairly brief. Prolonged licking isn’t usually well-tolerated by the recipient, and shouldn’t be encouraged as it can quickly turn into scuffles or fights.
Mothers will lick their very young puppies a lot, because it stimulates important physiological functions such as respiration. It also helps to clean them of placental or other fluids. Once the puppies have gotten the knack of breathing on their own, mother dogs will lick them to encourage nursing, prompt pooping and peeing, provide comfort and clean away food residue. As they get older, puppies may also lick their mother’s muzzle to prompt regurgitation of food.
Why Do Dogs Lick Themselves?
Grooming and cleaning are the most basic reasons for dogs to lick themselves, because something on the body needs fixing—the fur has been disarranged, or the belly is wet or gravel is trapped in the paw pads. Licking injuries increases circulation, removes debris and the dog’s saliva contains properties that are anti-bacterial for the dog. The activity itself is also soothing.
When Is Dog Licking Excessive?
Normal licking for grooming and cleaning should be a finite activity, but if it routinely continues past its original purpose it can cause both physical and behavioral problems. Obsessive self-soothing can result in raw spots and perpetually irritated or open wounds; if you see that your dog is licking or chewing the same body parts all the time, take them to your veterinarian to check for underlying physical issues. You may not be able to see an obvious cause for the licking (such as a splinter or burr), but it may be indicative of arthritis, allergies or injury that calls for professional diagnosis, treatment and medication.
Like so many things, licking is fine in moderation. It’s okay for your dog to lick you occasionally, but it’s best to keep him away from your face, mouth or broken skin. If your dog is licking anything, human, self, or otherwise, more than usual, schedule a vet visit to rule out underlying physical or behavioral issues.
A graduate of The University of Chicago, Melanie worked in academia and finance for many years before joining the companion animal community. She believes that a good education fosters compassion, informed advocacy, and a deeper understanding of animals as they really are. She is passionate about effective communication, and in addition to her freelance writing and editing gigs she has a burgeoning career as an instructional designer. Melanie lives in Chicago with her overlords—a flock of super-smart companion parrots and a Chi-Puggle mix named Hattie.