BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Why Dogs Lick: Understand What Fido Is Trying To Say

Licking dog
John Walton
Written by John Walton

Dogs can do many things that surprise us. They want to protect us, but also to make us happy when they feel we are sad. So if you are wondering why dogs lick, it is important to know that this is a natural behavior, and it is practiced since a young age. While some owners define it as annoying, others simply accept and appreciate their pet’s attention. Their soft and tickling tongue can be the best therapy after a long and stressful day at work. It is a true delight to feel how much your pet can love you, no matter the situation.

If you carefully watch your dog, you will see that it does not only lick your hand or your face, but many other things. This is why it can be defined as a way of communication. As a result, it is your job, as a responsible pet owner to understand what your dog is trying to tell you. Licking can have both a positive and a negative interpretation, depending on the context. It can be the way a dog tastes things, shows its love, but also a sign of injury or anxiety.

This article aims to approach this subject in a detailed manner, so pet owners can know whether to hug their dog or visit the veterinarian.

Positive licking

Licking is part of the dog’s natural behavior. After it finishes the food from the bowl, it keeps on licking until there is not a single crumb left. The same treatment is received by the floor if you spill something, or you cook. This is completely normal, and it is the sign that the dog simply enjoys the taste. If you have food particles on your hand after eating, be sure that your pet can smell them and wants to eat them. However, do not expect to stop when the last spot of grease is over, because the salt from the skin is as delicious as food.

Dogs licking popsicle

Though licking for grooming is a common behavior for cats (and they do it most of the time), it is important to know that dogs do it too. They learn it from a young age from their mother that cleans them all the time. Even the puppies lick one another in an attempt to imitate their parent’s behavior. If you take a look at your dog’s fur in the evening and early in the morning, you will see that it is cleaner, and the dirt from the legs is gone. Though you can rarely see the dog grooming itself, it is a natural practice among pets.

If your dog has any sorts of injuries, you will see that it will lick them frequently. You do not need to worry about it, as the saliva is full of enzymes that have the purpose to kill off bacteria. As a result, the wound will heal faster, and it will not become infected. The tongue has several helpful effects, like cleaning the dirt from the injured area, or removing the dead tissue. If you have small scratches, you will see that your pet will want to lick them, as part of its natural response to these sorts of situations.

Pets rely on licking to communicate things. In the animal world, it can be interpreted as – I want to be friends. Dogs understand each other, but the things are not as simple for the owners. To be more exact, there are various messages that can be transmitted through this behavior. If it licks your hand continuously, and intensively it may try to tell you that it is thirsty. As this point, it is a good idea to check the water bowl and fill it up if it is empty. However, the needs can differ, so you have to try to comprehend the reason.

A common reason for licking is affection. After a long day at work, most pet owners are received with licks and happy barking. While the enthusiasm is highly appreciated, not all people like being licked all over the body. However, this manifestation releases endorphin’s that have the role to comfort and calm the dog.

If you feel overwhelmed with attention, all you need to do is to ignore the dog and go in a different room. After several days (or even weeks, depending how stubborn your dog is), your pet will understand that licking causes you to leave, and it will stop eventually.

Dog licking his owner

These are the major messages a dog wants to transmit through licking. They are completely normal and do not affect the health of your pet in any way. It is up to you to decide whether you can accept it, or you want to change it. If being licked all over the face is something that you do not enjoy at all, you can correct it.

On the other hand, excessive liking in dogs is a sign of a compulsive behavior. This is why you need to see how your dog reacts in various situations, so you can prevent serious illnesses. The following paragraphs will teach you how to differentiate positive licking from negative one.

Problematic licking

If you are a pet owner, and you can hear yourself saying almost all the time that – My dog won’t stop licking, you may be facing a serious problem. When the dog continuously licks a certain area and shows any signs of nervousness, it is asking for your help. Even though this natural behavior helps dogs relive stress, if it is done in an obsessive manner, it just reinforces anxiety and as a result, the problem gets worse.

In order to identify its roots, it is important to analyze the reactions when you are in the room and when you leave the dog alone. If you can notice a trait, it is time to pay the veterinarian a visit.

Dog licking himself

Dogs can also suffer from allergies, just like people. When they combine licking with continuous scratching, it can mean that the dog is allergic to food, or certain environmental triggers. If the reaction gets worse when you go outside, it may be caused by pollen, while if it occurs in a specific room, it is due to mold. There are also various skin irritations similar to allergies that can be caused by soap (especially if it is not specially created for the pet), or pesticides. They are easy to spot if you analyze the reactions of your dog in diverse situations and environments.

Just like their owners, dogs can suffer from anxiety. It can be caused by the feeling that they are left behind when you leave for work, when you bring a new pet or a baby is born. In this case, too much licking can be compared to obsessive-compulsive disorder, the well-known human condition. If you do not try to understand what exactly bothers your dog, this manifestation can go from bad to worse in no time. The constant licking, especially in sensitive areas, like the belly, can lead to injuries. On the other hand, if it licks certain objects, it can damage them.

The cold season does not affect only your skin, but also your dog’s. The deficiency of fat acid, combined with the winter weather dries the skin. If you notice that your dog constantly scratches and licks itself, it actually removes the dry skin. At this stage, it is a good idea to visit the veterinarian and ask for some vitamins or supplements that can re balance the natural secretions.

The fur is another excellent indicator of this condition. To be more exact, it is tarnished, and it falls easier. If you do not do something about it, your dog will not be able to protect itself from the cold, and this can lead to other illnesses, like pneumonia, or frostbite.

Health issues

Dogs can also suffer from hormonal imbalances. In this case, the reactions are similar to the allergic ones. When the body produces too much cortisol, or too little thyroid hormone, it leads to superficial skin infections. They can be observed as tiny red spots that your dog will lick intensively. Before going to the veterinarian it is a good idea to determine the root of the problem. If you take the dog to a different room, or outside and the reactions stop, the cause can be an allergen. The more details you can provide, the sooner you pet can receive the proper treatment.

Too much licking can be an indicator of pain. If your dog is also grumpy and shows signs of aggression, you need to check what makes it feel uncomfortable. There may be a thorn in its paw, or bugs in its fur. However, if you check it and notice nothing, the problem can be more complex. Compulsive licking can be caused by an orthopedic problem. According to the dog’s age and physical activity, it can be either hip dysplasia or arthritis. If they are not treated accordingly, they can degenerate into more serious illnesses that could affect the movement of your pet.

Intensive licking can also be caused by parasites. The good thing about them is that they can be spotted with the naked eye. The ticks are the easiest to spot because they are black and get bigger as they feed with the dog’ s blood. Flees are relatively small, and can hide pretty well if the dog has thick fur. If you see your dog licking constantly, you need to take your time and examine every inch of its body, in order to prevent an infestation. However, the best way to prevent parasites is through applying substances (purchased only from reliable providers) that keep fleas and mites away.

How to differentiate medical from behavior licking?

As it was presented above, some dogs lick due to medical condition, while others as part of their everyday behavior. As this is not an outrageous behavior, pet owners tend to approach it in a relaxed manner, forgetting that it can lead to serious problems. In order to be able to differentiate them, it is important to take some tests that can be pretty expensive. Fortunately, there is another way to check the health condition of your pet.

The signs it tries to transmit can be deciphered through several factors:

  • age;
  • temperament and breed;
  • persistence of the issue.

Aspect #1 – age

Licking is not perceived as a problem among puppies. This is how they clean themselves and discover the world. Young dogs can express a similar behavior, but in this case, they do it to calm their excitement. When you definitely need to treat this matter in a serious manner is when a middle-aged, or old dog licks continuously. If this occurs without any history of anxiety attacks, it is an indicator of a health issue. At this point, you need to check it for any physical injuries, or flees infestation. If you spot nothing, it is time to visit the veterinarian for a detailed check-up.

Aspect #2 – temperament and breed

There are breeds, like large dogs, who have a predisposition for licking. It is in their genetics, and this makes them predisposed to compulsive disorders. At the same time, breeds like miniature schnauzers, German shepherd, Doberman pinscher, English bull terrier, King Charles Cavalier spaniel develop anxiety-related behaviors like checking hind end, tail chasing, flank sucking, spinning in circles and fly snapping.

If your older dog starts to react in a strange manner, without having any history in that direction, it means that the cause is most probably a health issue. It is important to report this observation to the veterinarian, in order to receive the appropriate treatment.

Aspect #3 – persistence of the issue

If your dog licks continuously for several months, the cause is less likely to be medical. There are weak chances not to notice a serious disease during this period. Illnesses like arthritis, or osteoporosis can be spotted easily as the dog feels less eager to interact with you or other pets, and lacks of appetite.

On the other hand, compulsive licking can be caused by anxiety, or the dog simply found a chewing toy that it cannot take its paws off. If it does not present any signs of aggression, and it responds to your commands, there is nothing to worry about. However, if you wish to correct it, you need to use treats and to discourage the behavior you do not like.

Compulsive licking and behavior dysfunctions

If you see your dog licking different surfaces from the house, you do not need to panic, especially if you cook often. The reality is that pets have sensitive smell, and this allows them to identify even the smallest particles of food.

If you spilled something, the dog will definitely be wandering in that particular area. This behavior can intensify if the dog has to follow a severely restricted diet due to certain health problem like obesity or diabetes. If this happen more than a couple of times and the pet finds leftovers in the same spots, it remembers that it can acquire food on those specific areas. As a result, it continues licking those locations not precisely as a compulsive reaction, but as a learned appetite reaction.

It is very easy to correct the reactions of your dog. All you need to do is to identify the areas that it likes to lick and to clean them thoroughly in order to remove any food or delicious scent. If you have children, it is a wise idea to teach them to eat in areas where the dog cannot reach, in order to prevent appetite licking from happening.

Dog licking a floor

If you do not treat appetite licking seriously, it can lead to another behavior dysfunction: attention-seeking licking. At this point, the dog understands that it manages to receive a response from the owner (especially if he/she is very busy almost all the time) if it does a certain thing. Though in most cases, the pet is punished, it is more than sufficient if it seeks for attention. This means that it will repeat it, whether there are food leftovers or not. It is more than clear that this can become annoying pretty soon, and if it is combined with chewing it can lead to a total disaster.

Attention-seeking licking can be corrected. To be more exact, it is a wise idea to videotape the dog when it is alone in the room and to analyze its reactions. Remember to aim the licking spot. If your dog goes directly to it even when it is alone, there are weak chances to develop a compulsive disorder. At this stage, you do not need to worry that your pet is seeking for your attention, but to clean that spot as soon as possible.

Another great way to correct the way the dog acts, is to ignore it when it starts licking. Avoid eye contact and leave the room, in a sign of disapproval. Though the first response will be an even more intense licking, it will stop when it sees that it is completely ignored by the owner.

Healing power of dogs

As it can be seen, it is completely normal for dogs to lick. It is a natural reaction, and this makes it part of their genetics. Unfortunately, it can also be a sign of a disease, or a behavioral dysfunction. In order to be able to help your dog, you need to analyze it. Once you figure out the cause, you can correct it. If the signs indicate that licking is caused by a disease, you need to visit a veterinarian as soon as possible. As dogs are very friendly and simply adore their owner, you need to be prepared for daily kisses.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Ruby Anderson

    What’s interesting is that in the past when the mother wolf hunts they eat their fill of the prey then come home to have their faces licked. This licking induces the mother to regurgitate their food. That may be very far to connect to modern dog behavior but it shows that licking is a clear method of communication that dogs have used for as long as their ancestry can trace. As far as I know now though, our dog is happy when he licks us in greeting!

    • John Walton

      These facts are really interesting and true, Ruby! Licking is indeed a behaviour that has been passed on for generations from wild dogs to domesticated dogs. It is a way of releasing tension and communication as well.

  • Betsy Johnson

    My mother in law has a Beagle that seems to lick people more when they step out of the shower! When my children were in middle school and staying at their home for the weekend, the dog seemed to like licking their wet legs when they step out of the bath. It’s quite odd. What could be the explanation? :)

    • John Walton

      Licking is part of the “investigation” of their surroundings, in addition to smelling and seeing things. It may look odd, but if this is something you consider harmless, then there is nothing to worry about. Just make sure your dog won’t lick the suds!

  • LeahJacobySmith

    Our daughter’s Corgi has been particularly close to her husband. Recently, they got another dog and her Corgi suddenly developed licking behaviors to get their attention. How do they stop their dog from this excessive behavior? When the couple return from work, the licking starts and their feet and clothes are covered with dog saliva.

    • John Walton

      It is a case of separation anxiety and agitation that needs to be addressed. Licking or overproduction of saliva is their way of releasing the tension. I would recommend a quick appointment with the vet with a possible referral to a dog behaviourist in order to correct this behaviour.

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