Why do dogs lick?
- Dogs are born with the instinctive behaviour to lick
- Female dogs lick their puppies to clean and comfort them
- Licking can indicate a variety of things, such as affection, an irritation/wound or a way of gaining more information about another dog
We sometimes associate dogs licking us as a kiss, one that - depending on how your dog’s breath is fairing that day - we like receiving. Though it's probably worth remembering that a dogs mouth is far from hygienic - think about all the things they lick and put in their mouths during the day!
But what does your dog actually mean when they lick?
Where does dog licking begin?
Dog licking is an instinctive behaviour that dogs are born with. Female dogs naturally lick their puppies as a means of cleaning them and as a form of comfort. Licking also helps to stimulate blood flow in the puppies when they are first born and helps them go to the toilet.
You may see young puppies licking their mother’s mouth enthusiastically, and this is to encourage her to regurgitate food for them to eat. Not all pet dogs will regurgitate food for their puppies, but this is an important part of the weaning process for the dog’s ancestors, the wolf.
As puppies grow older they begin to groom themselves and their littermates, which increases their bond. However, as dogs grow into adults, they rarely lick each other. Although you may still see puppies licking adult dogs as a way of greeting them.
Why does my dog lick?
Licking, like many other behaviour traits, can indicate various different things from attention seeking, to simply cleaning themselves.
Dogs lick themselves to clean their fur because their tongue offers some antibacterial properties, though it’s a myth that dogs have antiseptic tongues. Dog’s mouths also contain harmful bacteria which live alongside the good bacteria.
Your dog using its tongue to clean their fur is more about it being the most useful tool at their disposal.
Tasting their surroundings
Your dog will be able to pick up on a lot more information using their nose and mouth than humans can. Because of their heightened senses, dogs will sometimes lick another dog’s urine as a way of understanding the information that they smell in greater detail.
This may seem gross to us, but it allows your pet to understand whether the dog is male or female, neutered or unneutered, and even stressed all from their wee!
It’s very normal for puppies to lick both humans and other dogs when they are saying ‘hello’. This is usually accompanied by lots of sociable and excitable tail wagging and body wiggling.
As puppies get older they tend to do this less, but if the licking receives lots of attention (which it often does) then it’s likely to remain a big part of their greeting behaviour.
Dogs also learn that it’s a great way to get attention at other times – if we smile and stroke them when they lick us, then we easily reinforce this behaviour.
We are also pretty tasty to our dogs, especially with our post-workout salty skin!
As dogs don’t have hands like humans, they will often use their tongue to lick an area of irritation or a wound to comfort themselves. Depending on how much the irritation is bothering them, your dog will alter how often they lick the area.
Obsessive licking of a particular area should be closely monitored and, if it persists, you should speak to your vet to see what could be causing this.
Of course, as we all want to hear, licking can absolutely be a sign of affection too. As much as dogs will lick their owners for attention, they are seeking attention from you because they want to interact with you.