If you have a canine companion, you are probably well aware of its apparently constant desire to lick you, if possible. Dog owners across the world have experienced this to some degree or another, and while it can be a reassuring sign of trust and familiarity, it can also be a slobbering mess! This odd habit of dogs is something that many people wonder about, but there isn’t one clear answer.
In fact, there are many different reasons why a dog may be licking you, but before we explore those factors, it’s important that we first take a look at a dog’s tongue! Although it serves many of the same functions, the tongue of a dog is also a unique and highly specialized tool that helps them survive and thrive in life!
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The Tongue of a Dog
You might not give much thought to that big, sloppy tongue that your dog lays so graciously on couches, toys, water bowls and any exposed part of your skin it can reach, but it’s quite a remarkable adaptation. Dogs’ tongues serve more purposes than simply drooling on a hot day. Dogs use their tongues to groom themselves and their puppies, in a similar way to cats, although you may not see this happening too often, nor with every breed.
The tongue of a dog is also a means of moderating their body temperature. When a dog begins to overheat, it can pant by sticking out its tongue and allowing air to move around it, which leads to evaporation and the cooling of the blood. This is similar to the act of sweating in humans. Furthermore, dogs won’t only pant when they’re overexerted or hot; they can also demonstrate that they are stressed in some way, making the tongue a versatile communication
Similar to humans, a dog’s tongue is also its primary means of experiencing flavor and taste, and while a dog has approximately 5x fewer taste buds than humans, they still have more than cats, and are able to enjoy a wide range of sweet, sour, salty and savory sensations.
Most importantly, however, the tongue of a dog is an important means of interaction and communication, both between dogs and between a human and a pet. That is the fundamental basis for the many reasons why a dog might be licking you.
Reasons Dogs Lick
Just as every dog is unique, their particular reason for licking you in any given moment will always be different, but the following functions represent the main reasons why dogs seem to like licking things quite so much!
Licking is a part of a dog’s life from its very first breaths. In fact, mothers will lick their pups to essentially “wake them up” after they’re born, and will use her tongue to clean them off and encourage them to start feeding. As puppies grow up, licking remains a key means of communication between siblings and parents. It makes sense, therefore, if you are forming a “pack” with your pets, that there will be some deep-seated desire to lick their caretaker or guardian.
In the wild, licking is often used as a sign of submission; a lower-ranking wolf might lick an alpha male to show his submission and willingness to obey. When it comes to our pets, humans take the dominant role (or at least, they should), and if this is done successfully, your dog may simply be licking you to show that it accepts you as its leader.
In some instances, it’s very clear that your dog is showering you with love simply because they missed you and are excited that you walked back through the door. Those big slobbering kisses backed up with boundless energy is caused by their desire for pleasure. Yes, the simple act of licking actually provides a release of endorphins into the body. When you combine that with the sight of their favorite humans, dogs’ licking can get excessive in those first few moments!
Although the idea that dogs licking human wounds can speed the healing process is a myth, dogs’ tongues can provide some healing for themselves. There are some enzymes in dog saliva that can be antibacterial in nature, but the saliva certainly isn’t the cure for everything. Many times, licking a wound is a physical manipulation of dirt or dead tissue away from the wound to speed the healing process.
As mentioned, dogs don’t spend nearly as much time or energy cleaning themselves as cats, but they don’t mind the process of cleaning others. In that same maternal or familial spirit explained above related to old habits, dogs may want to groom you, cleaning your skin, particularly around the site of healing wounds. They also have a keen sense of smell, and are far better than humans at detecting scents on the skin that may need to be cleaned off. Dogs may also lick parts of their body that are irritated by contact allergies or other external issues, to try and remove the irritant.
At the most fundamental level, the tongue is one of the best means of communication. If a dog is hungry, has been lonely all day, or is having some sort of pain/health problem, excessive licking might be the best way for the dog to get your attention. The message might be a simple, “I like you”, but more often than not, inexplicable licking will be your dog’s way of telling you something.
Can Licking Be a Bad Thing?
Clearly, there are many different reasons why dogs choose to lick their humans so ravenously, but many pet owners wonder—can licking be a bad thing?
Well, aside from being annoying to some, and possibly leaving a bad smell on your skin, licking is generally harmless. In the case of a dog licking your wounds, however, it is best to avoid this, as a dog’s tongue still has a huge collection of bacteria that could potentially make the wound worse. In that case, there could be some risk involved. Similarly, if you don’t know where your dog’s mouth has been, it is usually best not to let him slobber all over your lips.
Licking may not inherently be a bad thing, but it can signal that something is wrong with your pet. Constant licking of the feet or a particular place on the body could signal an illness, infection or allergy. Pay attention if your dog’s frequency or intensity of licking change suddenly, as this may be a clear signal of a change in your dog’s mood or health.
Some people, as is understandable, don’t want their dog constantly licking them, but fortunately, there are a number of ways to stop this, such as negative reinforcement and other training strategies. Standing up, leaving the room, or ceasing to play with your dog as soon as licking begins is an effective way to gradually eliminate this potentially frustrating habit from your dog. Just remember, though, those slobbery kisses are often your dog’s best way of saying “I love you!”