When we ask, “Why do dogs lick people?” we must remember that they are practically licked into life. One of the first sensations that puppies feel, upon entering this strange world of ours, is the nurturing tongue of the mother who whelped them. Mom uses her tongue to clear away baby’s nostrils, encouraging each puppy that emerges from her womb to breathe the sweet air and make use of tiny lungs.
With such a greeting, it’s only natural that the tongue is one of the primary instruments by which dogs interact with their environment. Given this, we must expect the tongue, and its power of licking, to play at least some part in their interactions with people. Dogs lick people for some reasons that we can safely interpret and likely for many reasons we will never understand, until that glorious day when dogs acquire the power of human speech. Let’s look at six different reasons why dogs lick people.
Licking is one way that dogs communicate with each other. They lick each other in packs when they are in the wild, in environments where two or more dogs live together, or just lounging around the house with their human owners. Dogs lick people as a form of communication, but licks do not always convey the same message. A lick can be a sign of greeting to humans who have been away at school or work. A lick upon your return may be a way of saying, “Hello,” “I’m glad you are home,” or “Check out the new hole I’ve chewed in your couch pillow!”
Whether they are around other dogs or with people, dogs also lick those to whom they would show deference and submission. Dogs lick people to acknowledge a power structure. A few licks might be how dogs bend the knee, or pledge continued fealty to their owners. Licking is a way for dogs to show that they belong to us. If you’re anything like me, though, a communicative lick is just as much a dog asserting his control over you!
Once puppies reach that awkward age — weaned from the teat, but perhaps still not ready for kibble — they lick their mother’s mouth. This is to inform her that they would like to be fed. At this stage, puppies are not unlike baby birds. In the wild, mom may have to leave the puppies and forage for food. When puppies lick her mouth, she will regurgitate whatever she’s eaten and offer it to her young. When dogs lick people, particularly about the mouth, what we may think of as a kiss may actually be a request for food.
As we noted, dogs use their tongue to acquaint themselves with their surroundings. It is just another way they experience and explore the world. This exploration may be of their environment or of new people. As much of a wonder as dogs are to us, we are just as much a mystery to them. We’ve all met dogs for the first time, offered a hand for them to sniff, and found our hands licked in return. Even if you’ve had a dog for years, you may have touched or brought home some new thing — whether it’s tangible or microscopic — that makes your dog curious. Dogs lick people to try and puzzle out new sensory experiences.
Anyone who is licked by a dog for the first time may find it a startling, ticklish, or amusing experience. If a dog gets a sense that the act of licking people brings them pleasure, and earns them a pat on the head or a scratch behind the ears, he may come to link the two. If you’re sitting on the couch, binge-watching Call the Midwife or Game of Thrones, one thing you’re not doing is playing with your dog. Dogs lick people to remind them of these oversights.
In the ancient world, wise folk and healers noticed that dogs licked their own wounds as well as those of people. Wounds, both on the surface and beneath, seem to draw the attention of dog tongues. From the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome all the way through to the Middle Ages in Europe, you might be surprised to learn that dogs were not only encouraged, but even trained to lick wounds as a mode of healing. Fortunately, these days, we have topical antibiotics, but it is still common for a minor injury during a walk to receive a dog’s attention.
This one’s relatively simple, but dog “kisses,” in an affectionate context, may still signal things other than love. Dogs lick people during any kind of bonding exercise to show that they like it. My dog mostly used her tongue for eating and grooming. On the rare occasions that she licked my arm or hand, it seemed to signal satisfaction. Whenever I’d scratch her head, or behind her ears, she’d tolerate that for a few moments before lifting her right foreleg. This I always understood to mean that, while attention to her head was acceptable, she really wanted to be scratched under one foreleg, then the other. I’d know I found the desired spot because, for a couple of seconds, as I scratched, she would lick my arm. Precious moments.
Do you enjoy being licked by dogs? Does it gross you out just a little bit? Every dog is different, and every person has a unique relationship with their dogs. Is your dog a licker? When does your dog lick, and what do you think it means? Share your thoughts and theories in the comments!
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