Interpreting the Psychology of a Dog’s Licks

September 30, 2019

Interpreting the Psychology of a Dog’s Licks


We've always believed that when a dog licks our face, it's because they're giving us their version of kisses. It's such a universal experience that dog owners consider it a sign of affection.

While the thought of your dog "kissing" you may be partially true, there are many reasons as to why your pup runs up to you as soon as you get home to slather you in licks.

To understand the psychology of dog licking, you must first learn to interpret the different types of licks. Sometimes, it's behavioral — such as how mothers instinctively lick their young and other times, it's medical. So be observant about the way your dog licks themselves.


Why do dogs lick each other?

Aside from barking, one of the first methods of communication a dog learns is how to lick. They imitate this action by learning from their mothers.

Dogs licking each other


1. Grooming

It's natural for puppies to start grooming themselves and their pack mates as they get older. When puppies get into the habit of grooming, you can think of it as the stage in their lives when they reach "self-awareness." As they get older, they start to wean off their mothers, and grooming is the first step to a puppy’s independence.

However, dogs that groom themselves excessively, particularly by licking, can be suffering from a condition called canine compulsive disorder. Canine Compulsive Disorder is similar to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in humans and is usually the result of stress or frustration.

The act of licking, nibbling, or self-grooming, in general releases endorphins in a dog's brain, which in turn combats anxiety, pain, and stress. While this isn't too big of an issue, you need to monitor how much your dog is grooming themselves because sometimes they overdo it and end up with wounds that result from excessive nipping.

If your dog's behavior starts to worry you, you should bring them to the vet who could prescribe a pet psychologist.


2. Mother knows best

Nursing mothers often lick their puppies to stimulate their defecation and urination. Don't panic when you see a nursing mother lick or ingest her puppy’s bowel and urinary movements because she's reabsorbing the nutrients from her milk. Her pups have nothing but the best source of nutrition which means their excretions are nothing but processed breast milk.

This act is the remnant of a dog's wild ancestry behavior. Back in the day, it was easier for a mother to carry food in her stomach instead of lugging her hunt back to the den. Ancestral wolf puppies would lick their mothers face when they wanted her to regurgitate food for them.


3. Welcome to the pack

Puppies lick each other to welcome others back into the pack, like after one of them goes for a long walk, plays with other dogs, or even after they take a bath. It's a way for them to mark the identity of their packmates, and it increases the bonds between their pack members.


4. Asserting dominance

Grown-up dogs lick each other as a sign of deference or submissiveness to a dominant pack member.

The submissive dog lowers its body to make it look smaller, and then looks up to the dominate dog while licking it to add to the effect of subordinate behavior.

The dog receiving the face licks exhibits its dominance by standing tall to receive the gesture but won't return the favor to the submissive dog.


Why do dogs lick people?

Essentially, dogs lick their owners out of affection. But other times, these licks could stem from hunger or anxiety.

Dog kissing its hooman


1. Hunger

If you've been gone from home the whole day, odds are your dog is hungry. You won't have to do what wolves of the olden times had to do, but you can grab a treat and toss it their way.


2. Affection towards their owners

And how can we forget, dogs lick their owners because they love them. Your dog misses you the moment you step out the door, and this feeling brews the longer you're out of the house. As soon as your dog finds out that you're home, their brains get flooded with oxytocin and all their pent up feelings of happiness are expelled on you in the form of excited jumps and licks.


3. They enjoy the taste of people (and things)

Unlike humans, dogs do not have sweat glands. They cool off by releasing heat from their ears and panting to keep their internal temperature from overheating. Dogs do, for a fact, enjoy the way that people taste. Which is again, another remnant of their ancestry. Keep in mind that although dogs are carnivorous creatures, they have no intention of replacing their dog food with us. Their predatory characteristics were watered down over time due to domestication. But they still enjoy a couple of licks here and there.

If you catch your dog licking the most random thing like your leather couch or exercise ball, it's because it has your scent on it not necessarily because your dog enjoys the taste of expensive upholstery.


Why do dogs lick themselves?

Most of the time, a dog licks itself because of medical reasons — such as when their allergies or sore spots make them uncomfortable. If your dogs are showing any signs of discomfort or there's a sudden change in their behavior, you need to have them checked for the following conditions:

Dog's tongue out


1. Wounds

A dog’s saliva has enzymes that heal cuts and abrasions, and it's in a dog’s nature to lick their wounds.

However, this action can produce subsequent damage in the form of additional inflammation, which can lead to infection. Wounds are treated based on their severity, which often results in your veterinarian requiring collars that prevent further licking of the area.


2. Fleas

The smallest of menaces but the biggest headaches, fleas — the dog flea, or its scientific name Ctenocephalides canis is a species of insect that lives as an ectoparasite on a wide variety of mammals, particularly the domestic dog and cat.

Don't underestimate the discomfort fleas can bring your dog. These tiny parasitic pests can cause itching and hair fall, especially when your dogs have a flea allergy.

If you notice that your dog is frequently biting, scratching, and licking itself, check for fleas and bring them to the groomer asap. It only takes one flea for your furry friend to start scratching itself like there's no tomorrow.

Remember to keep your dog's tick and flea medication updated and to clean out your backyard. Fleas hide in the plants, so if you suspect you have an infestation, have your place fumigated.

There are many chemical-based products available in the market that can help you get rid of the flea problem. However, you can also combat the flea problem by natural means.


3. Environmental triggers

Pets will lick their allergies in an attempt to soothe themselves, but if that bothers you, you can put a cone around their heads. Check their paws, armpit areas, flanks, and groin as these places are most likely to develop allergies.

Anything from pollen to dry air can trigger your dog's allergies, and these nuances are often seasonal in nature. Seek your veterinarian's attention when your pets are overdoing it. Allergies need to dry up to heal, and your pet’s constant licking keeps the area moist.

If needed, you can wrap the area loosely in gauze to prevent your dog's saliva from getting on their raw skin.


4. Dermatitis

The most common symptoms of Canine Atopic Dermatitis include itching, excessive scratching, rubbing on the carpet, hair loss, greasy or flaky skin with a foul odor, excessive chewing on the paws and areas such as the groin and armpits.

Some dogs are more prone to developing allergies than others, and their skin gets inflamed more easily. A myriad of reasons such as can cause inflammation in your dog's skin:

  • mites
  • hormonal disease
  • food allergies
  • auto-immune diseases
  • non-allergy irritation, "hot spots,"
  • and more

A good indicator of where the irritated areas are is when your pet starts lapping at them almost uncontrollably.

Bring your dog to their veterinarian so they can prescribe a cream or medication to alleviate your pet's discomfort.

Also, look for a dog shampoo that's mild enough for dogs with sensitive skin. You may not realize it, but their bath products could be the root of their discomfort.


5. They lick the scent off their noses

They lick their noses to taste what they smell.

Yes, you read that right. Dogs have the ability to taste what they're smelling by licking their noses! Your furry friend's nose is often wet because it's trying to sample the scent on its nose with the olfactory glands on the roof of their mouths.


6. They lick their noses for moisture retention.

Part of being a responsible pet owner is keeping your dogs hydrated. A dry nose doesn't necessarily mean that they're not drinking enough water — although it could be one reason. A dry nose could be the result of the weather, air conditioning, or even dirt from when your pup was digging through the garden. Dogs lick their noses because they find dry noses uncomfortable, so they do their best to keep it moist. Also, it's easier for their olfactory sensors to pick up scents when the mucus isn't dried up.


Why do dogs arbitrarily lick things?

Sometimes, there are no explanations as to why dogs lick things. They’re either bored, curious, or sometimes even both.

Dog playing with a ball


1. They lick things out of curiosity

To make up for the lack of their sense of touch, dogs have heightened hearing, olfactory, and taste sensors. They examine new things by giving it a sniff and a lick. Have you noticed that when you buy your dog a new toy, they don't just take off with it? They do a full 360 of the object until they trust it enough to play with it.

The same goes for treats that they're not used to, especially for picky eaters. They give the gift a couple of licks for chowing it down.


2. They lick things out of boredom

Dogs get bored, too, and when they have nothing to do, they find ways to entertain themselves. You will see this in dogs who start chasing their tails or licking their paws while they're lying on their backs. Typically, they're at their most relaxed state when they're doing this.


Now that you understand the psychology of your dog licks it will be easier for you to figure out what they're trying to communicate. They could be happy to see you, itchy, or bored. Again, if your dog is licking itself out of discomfort or if you feel like it's done as the result of compulsion disorders, schedule a visit to your veterinarian immediately.

Don't let this information bum you out because you can still think of your dog's licks as kisses after a long day of not seeing you. Remember that dogs are naturally affectionate creatures that will do anything to please their owners and them showing their love to you by licking is one of the ways that they do it.

Overall, we want you to know that it’s completely okay for your dogs to lick you! Indulge them with the affection that they slather you in!

Also in News

15 Summer Essentials For Dogs: Keep Your Furry Friend Cool and Happy
15 Summer Essentials For Dogs: Keep Your Furry Friend Cool and Happy

June 03, 2024

Here are 15 summer essentials that will help you both make the most of the sunny days ahead.

Read More

10 Pawsitively Perfect Holiday Gifts for Dog Lovers
10 Pawsitively Perfect Holiday Gifts for Dog Lovers

October 16, 2023

Discover 10 perfect gifts for the dog lover in your life!

Read More

How to Keep Exploring After Dark
How to Keep Exploring After Dark

September 17, 2023

Hiking at night lets you experience the outdoors in a whole new way, lending a sense of adventure to even the most familiar terrain.

Read More