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Dog Licking – Why Dogs Lick

Dog licking – Why Dogs Lick – Dr. Stanley Coren

(Excerpt from How to Speak Dog)

“…As the puppies grow older, they begin to lick and clean themselves and their littermates. This mutual licking and grooming serves social functions. Obviously, it helps keep the puppies clean, but in the process it helps strengthen the bonds between the puppies. The actual mechanism that builds this affection is mutual satisfaction. A puppy can have companions get at those hard-to-reach places, like ears and backs and faces, and can pay them back by licking their littermates in their inaccessible regions. Since friends and familiars groom friends and familiars as a considerate gesture, the very act of licking another dog develops significance as a means of communication. Licking thus shifts from being a utilitarian and useful act to becoming a ritualized gesture. The meaning of this gesture at this time in a puppy’s life involves goodwill and acceptance. In effect, each puppy is saying, “Look how friendly I am.” As the puppy matures, the message sent by licking continues to be friendly but is widened to also mean, “I’m no threat,” and perhaps the submissive plea, “Please accept me and be kind.”

Licking takes on a further meaning a bit later in the puppy’s life, usually around the time that it is becoming less dependent on its mother’s milk. In the wild, when a mother wolf returns from hunting, she will have already fed herself on her quarry. When she enters the den, the puppies gather around her and begin to lick her face. To a romantic, this may look like a loving greeting with all of the puppies overjoyed at mother’s return after her absence of several hours. They are seen as simply kissing her in happiness and relief. The actual purpose of all of this face licking, however, is much more functional. Wild canines have a well-developed regurgitation reflex, and the puppies lick their mother’s face and lips to cause her to vomit up some food. It is most convenient for the mother to carry food in her stomach rather than trying to drag things back to the den in her mouth. Furthermore, this partially digested material makes ideal dining for young puppies.

It is interesting to note that our domestic dogs actually have a reduced sensitivity for their regurgitation reflex in comparison to wolves or jackals. Puppy-induced regurgitation is not as often seen in dogs unless the pups are not being fed well. When it does occur, it is more likely to occur in sharp-faced breeds that appear to be more similar to wild canines, such as the wolf.

Understanding the development of licking behavior helps to interpret another place where it occurs. Face licking in adult canines can be a sign of respect or deference to a more dominant dog. The dog doing the licking usually lowers its body to make itself smaller, and looks up, adding to the effect of juvenile behavior. The dog receiving the face licks shows its dominance by standing tall to accept the gesture, but does not lick the other dog in return.

Now when your dog tries to lick your face, you should have a better idea of what he’s trying to communicate. He may simply be hungry and asking for a snack. Obviously, you won’t regurgitate some food at that signal, but you might respond affectionately and perhaps give him a treat, such as a dog biscuit. He may be communicating submission and pacification-the adult version of goodwill in puppies. Basically, he is saying, “Look, I’m just like a puppy who is dependent on big adults like you. I need your acceptance and help.” Alternatively, he may be showing respect and deference to you as a more dominant dog in his pack…”

Excerpted from How to Speak Dog
© Stanley Coren All rights reserved
Reprinted by permission
Dr. Stanley Coren is a professor of Psychology.
He has written 6 books on dogs and is the host
of the television show Good Dog!

One Response to this Article, So Far

  1. Avatar Sue says:

    Our adult dog is constantly giving us ‘kisses’. It’s not because she’s hungry and she knows how much we love her (had her for 10 years as a rescue dog). What else could it be?

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