Dogs lick for a number of reasons. There is never one simple explanation for something like this because behaviour in dogs is so complex! As a dog trainer, I get asked this question all the time and with a dog who loves to lick children, I thought it was time to give you guys some answers.
Here are some of the main reasons why dogs lick…
- Exploring. it’s amazing how much a dog can learn about you or about something by using their tongue. Dogs use their sense of taste to distinguish the various things around them and us.
- It feels good. They wouldn’t continue with a behaviour over and over if it didn’t feel good.
- To communicate. Dogs communicate in many ways; barking, tail wagging, body posture, etc. Licking is another way for them to communicate and tell you something.
- To Show affection. If your dog can see that you’re enjoying when he licks you, he may keep doing it.
- Stress. Sometimes licking can be a sign of stress, anxiety, not enough physical or mental stimulation. It is important to get to the bottom of this and work out what is causing the stress and anxiety. A subtle lip lick can also be a sign that your dog is stressed. I see this often around children.
- As a way of getting some space. Often when a dog licks you, you pull back and give them space. Some dogs will actually learn that when they feel they need a bit of space or distance from the person too close to them, they will give a big lick in an attempt to move them away. This happens A LOT with children. Family Paws calls this a “Kiss to Dismiss”- a big lick with the intention to get the child to move away. So watch out for this and make sure to seperate your child and dog if you see this happen.
- Attention seeking behaviour. Your dog might just be trying to get your attention, and if you are giving it to him when he licks, he will continue this behaviour. If you think your dog is licking for attention, stop giving him the attention. Ignore the behaviour.
- Something might just taste delicious. If your dog is licking you constantly, he may like your salty/sweet taste. For example, Cooper has learnt that toddlers generally have food on them, so he often tries to lick kids. As a dog mum, I don’t mind him doing it to my kids (sometimes, not all the time as it is pretty gross) but other people may not appreciate this, so it is important to teach your dog boundaries. If your dog is licking the same spot constantly, on the carpet or the couch for example, food may have been dropped there recently. Cooper will do this to the carpet often if the kids had dropped food earlier in the day. So I will just remove him from the area to stop this.
I touched on this briefly above but I thought I would turn to my lovely friend, Dr Kate Mornement from Pets Behaving Badly to help us out with a more in-depth and specific answer. Dr Kate is a PhD qualified Applied Animal Behaviourist. She consults to pet owners and people working professionally with animals. She is a media spokesperson, educator and Kate is also a mum!
“According to behaviour science – any behaviour that maintains or increases in frequency must be reinforcing (rewarding) or it would not continue. Although licking is a normal behaviour for dogs, when it becomes excessive it should be addressed. Stopping this behaviour requires understanding the motivation behind it. In many cases, excessive licking is related to an underlying health or behavioural issue such as Canine Compulsive Disorder. A trip to the vet to treat or rule out a medical issue is a good first step. Excessive licking can also be related to anxiety. Dogs lick to relieve anxiety just like some people bite their nails or fidget. Treating the underlying cause of the anxiety, under the guidance of a qualified behaviourist, will help stop the licking. Finally, if the licking is not excessive, and just something your dog does occasionally why not provide your dog with appropriate outlets for licking? These can include soft toys, chew toys and feeding your dog from puzzle toys. Reward your dog for licking these items with lots of attention and treats. If your dog licks the couch, redirect them to lick the appropriate items and reward heavily. With some time and repetition your dog will be much more likely to lick these items instead of your couch.” Dr Kate Mornement.
A big thanks to Dr Kate for helping us get to the bottom of this. I hope that together we have answered all your questions about why dogs lick. If you want more from myself or Dr Kate on anything dog related, please feel free to get in touch.