When you notice your dog licking his lips, you might assume he’s hungry or just finishing up a tasty meal. But why do dogs lick their lips — even if, sometimes, there’s no food in sight? Is this more of a behavioral or a medical situation? Well, in short, it could be either.
Lip licking is a way for dogs to communicate via body language. If you notice your dog licking his lips when you admonish him for an unwanted behavior — or when he is at the veterinary clinic or any place that makes him uncomfortable — you can assume that the lip licking is caused by stress.
The term ‘calming signal’ was coined by Norwegian dog trainer, Turid Rugaas, who associates lip licking with stress, fear or confusion in a dog. She believes that this behavior can begin initially as a stress response, but over time can turn into an obsessive habit, like nail biting in humans.
If your dog is licking his lips out of stress, try to redirect him in a positive manner. One way to do this is to give him a simple cue and reward him when he follows it. You should avoid comforting your dog when he seems uneasy because this can actually reinforce his fear or anxiety.
Dogs also lick their lips to appease a person or animal who they perceive as a threat in order to ward off aggression. While this is considered to be a submissive gesture, it is still a sign that a dog is stressed and uncomfortable. Also, this does not mean that the dog won’t eventually become defensive and/or aggressive if the uncomfortable stimulus remains as is. At this point, it’s best to back off and give the dog some space to get more comfortable.
“If you want your dog to respect you, you must also respect your dog. A good relationship is based on two-way communication, and living together in a well-balanced togetherness,” says Turid. “Leadership does not solve anything; it only creates problems, in our lives as well as in the dogs’ lives.”
Sometimes dogs exhibit appeasement gestures like lip licking and yawning when they are frustrated or confused. Owners may notice this behavior during training sessions when their dogs are having trouble understanding what is expected of them. This is a clear sign that the lesson needs to end soon, and on a positive note (perhaps by asking the dog to do something easy, like ‘sit’).
When you start again the next day or so, try to break down the action or training into smaller segments so it’s easier for your dog to learn.
In some cases, the answer to, “Why do dogs lick their lips?” is because of physical maladies such as nausea, dental disease or mouth pain. Gastroesophageal reflux, abrupt dietary changes, intestinal obstruction or a bout of pancreatitis can also be culprits. Lip licking, nausea and vomiting are often secondary to other conditions like liver disease, kidney disease or Addison’s disease.
Remember that it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior, you should promptly make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Thumbnail: Photography © bobmadbob | iStock / Getty Images Plus.
Writer Elizabeth Vecsi lives in the Hudson Valley with her five cats. Over the past two decades, she has been an editor and writer for various pet publications, including Cornell’s Dogwatch.