When your dog licks you- how do you respond? Do you think, 'Aww kisses?' or 'ew! Please stop!' Most dog owners have experienced the behavior of licking with their dogs, some more than others. So, why do dogs lick? And is there anything you can do about it?
Licking is a normal dog behavior that can be seen in a variety of circumstances like eating/tasting, grooming, getting attention, and even indicating stress. Just like humans often explore the world by using our hands to touch or pick up items, dogs explore the world with their mouths. When we evaluate a behavior like licking to try to determine why it is happening, it is important to look at the full picture of what is going on to help you identify the meaning or emotions driving the behavior. Why do Dogs Lick Us? Grooming, tasting, showing affection (like how a mother may tend to young puppies), asking for attention, and signaling stress (or rather an appeasement behaviors), are some common circumstances involving people where we may see licking. If you have just washed your hands and put lotion on, gone for a run, or prepared some food, licking can be a way for your dog to get some of that tasty residue left on your skin. If a person is grossed out by licking, they might accidentally provide exciting attention or stimuli like fussing “Aghhh! Stop it!” and waving an arm each time the tongue touches their skin- which can turn licking into an effective way for your dog to get your attention (an attention-seeking behavior like jumping up or barking).
In addition to neutral (like grooming) or exciting circumstances (like tasting food and getting attention), we can also see dogs lick as an appeasement behavior. This indicates that they were significantly stressed out and are trying to communicate to the other dog or even a human that they don’t want conflict. For example, if a puppy and adult dog are playing and the adult dog shows their teeth and growls - likely indicating they've had enough and don't want to play. The puppy may back away and then slowly approach the adult with flat ears or a ducked head while licking the air or the adult’s face. This appeasement behavior shows the adult that the puppy doesn't want conflict. Or, maybe a human has become irritated with a biting puppy and they raised their voice. The puppy may stop biting and approach the human displaying whale eye (where you can see the whites around the eye of the dog), a crouched body, and tongue flicks- their way to try to avoid conflict.
When is Dog Licking NOT Normal?
All behavior has a function- like we previously mentioned. But when the behavior is seen in excess, begins to cause other medical issues, or interferes with normal routine/life, then it requires further assessment and potentially some intervention from a veterinary professional or a behavior specialist. Licking that is saturating blankets and beds, licking that causes irritated skin or red sores on the body (most commonly the stomach, feet or tail), or chronic licking that you are unable to interrupt could be indicative of a health or behavioral concern. When in doubt, it is always a good idea to get in touch with the pros!
Can You STOP Licking?
While licking can certainly be annoying, if it is happening within normal limits then generally, we want to allow the behavior to occur. However, we can work with our dog to reduce licking or even eliminate it in certain circumstances and replace it with an alternative behavior that we find more desirable. For example, if your dog likes to lick to get attention, you can ignore the licking. By ignoring the licking, the behavior no longer gains the reinforcement (our attention). Then we need to a different behavior, like a stationary sit in front of us. This way the dog learns that licking no longer works but sitting does!
We can also work on teaching a positive interrupter to our dogs. In training sessions we can say our chosen word like “that’s all!” or “that’s enough!” and throw some treats on the ground by the dog. After a few mini training sessions, your dog will hear this word and begin to gravitate towards you, looking at you and even moving towards you. Positive interrupters can effectively interrupt the licking (like licking a couch, a guest, or another dog) and with your dog’s attention you can now redirect them to something else you would like them to do, like laying on a mat with a bone, or sitting for treats.
Do we Ever Want to Encourage Licking?
Licking can also be a beneficial behavior. Licking releases endorphins, which can help calm and soothe dogs. So, for some dogs who experience anxiety, an owner may prefer the dog to lick instead of pacing around the living room. And in this case they may way to encourage this behavior as it is more desirable than an alternative. As dog owners, we can also strategically use licking with the use of food puzzles like Kongs, Toopls, and Licki Mats and provide the dog with a safe and species-appropriate licking outlet. We can use the tools to help calm excitement/arousal levels of young dogs in the evening when we are trying to relax and watch TV or to soothe storm stress by providing licking toys during rain. If your dog licks compulsively, consider reaching out to use for an in-person or virtual consult! We can help you implement some new management and training strategies to change your dog's habits.