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Why Do Dogs Lick People?

By Langley Cornwell

Our dog is a licker. I won’t go so far as to say she’s an obsessive licker, but she likes to lick. She can get fixated on a spot, either on herself or on me or my husband, and lick as long as we can stand it. I asked our veterinarian about it —because it seems excessive— and the vet thinks that since our dog is somewhat anxious, she’s probably using licking as a relaxation technique. The vet said some dogs enjoy licking because the act releases endorphins that allow the dog to feel pleasure and a sense of security and comfort. A dog’s licking is like a person biting their fingernails; basically they do it to relieve stress.

This makes sense because our dog also yawns a lot, and we’ve learned that yawns are a canine’s calming signal. Yawning is an important part of a dog’s communication toolbox; they often yawn when they are in what they believe is a stressful situation. For example, dogs are not hugged or petted in the wild so it probably doesn’t feel natural for them. When we give our dog a big hug or get expressive with a scratch on the head, she very often starts her yawning repetitions. She uses these short yawns to comfort herself so when she starts self-licking, it’s likely for the same reason.

But why does she lick us? Why do dogs lick people?

Here’s a typical evening scenario. We’re all piled up on the sofa, relaxing and talking about the day. Our dog and cat are in the mix because they have to be the center of everything. Then our dog will find a place on my exposed arm or leg and start the licking. If I would sit still I think she would lick me indefinitely.

As kids, we were sure that a dog’s lick was a canine kiss. We thought that the more your dog licked you, the more she loved you. There’s a part of me that still believes this is true, but I couldn’t find scientific evidence to back me up.

There is some logic to that universal childhood theory, however. From the day pups are born, their mother licks them to clean them and stimulate breathing as well as to encourage elimination. Mother’s licks (kisses) are vitally important for a newborn puppy’s survival. Furthermore, when puppies lick one another it serves an important social function which strengthens the bond between littermates. The act of licking is a natural instinct that dogs learn from their mother at an early age. Since one of their earliest social bonds involves licking, that action has become a significant canine social device.

Because of the social importance of licking, it’s reasonable to conclude that when a dog licks you she is expressing her love for you. It’s easy to believe that when your dog happily licks your hand when you walk in the door, she’s happy to see you. And that, when a dog licks you after you’ve been petting her, she is showing fondness and gratitude, and that she’s returning the loving gesture.

Licking is also a submissive gesture, a sign of respect and obedience. Within a pack of feral or wild dogs, the more subordinate dogs will lick the more dominant ones. This act of submission strengthens the bond within the pack and helps maintain balance and harmony. So when a dog licks you she is showing respect and acknowledging that you are the alpha, the one who provides the CANIDAE dog food and shelter.

Another reason dogs lick is to gather information. Smell is a canine’s primary information gathering sense, but taste is an important tool as well. Notice the next time a dog greets another dog. There’s plenty of smelling going on, but there may be licking too.

Within a wolf pack, wolves lick one another’s mouths to determine if one of them has eaten recently, and to learn if there is a fresh food source is nearby. Also in the wild, recently weaned puppies will lick their mother’s mouth to stimulate her to regurgitate so they can eat the predigested food.

Dogs lick people to learn about them. What a dog tastes when she licks a person gives her clues to the person’s chemical composition, which communicates other important things about the human. Our skin secretes a wealth of information for the curious canine and through licking they gain insight into our health and perhaps our moods.

And an obvious reason dogs lick people is because people taste good! Dogs like the taste of their owner’s salty skin or a lotion you wear, or even that drop of maple syrup you spilled on your arm during breakfast.

Photo by Holly Williams

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