When I put on a new pair of shoes, my dog, Baby, won’t go anywhere until she’s given them a good sniff and a quick pass with her tongue. My friend Rochelle’s dog, Sugar, has a peculiar habit of introducing herself to strangers by licking their knees. Why do they do it? Why do dogs lick, and why do they lick people?
Tongues give our dogs information about the world around them. We’ve all met dogs for the first time, reached out a hand in friendship and had it coated in drool. Even if you’ve had a dog for years, you’re probably going to get licked every time you come home. A few licks can tell your dog something about where you were and what you came in contact with.
Once they’re weaned, but before they’re ready for kibble, puppies are like baby birds. They lick mom’s mouth to let her know they’re hungry. In the wild, dog moms seek food, chew it up and offer it to their puppies. When dogs lick us, especially around our mouths, what we think of as dog kisses may actually be a way of asking what’s for dinner!
Sounds we can hear — barks, howls or whimpers — are only one way a dog communicates. Licking can be conversational, too! Beyond curiosity and hunger, a dog lick might be a form of greeting or a display of loyalty. A lick when we open the front door is a dog’s way of saying “Welcome home!” or “I need to pee!” Dogs lick each other to acknowledge their place in a social group; when they lick us, it might either be to say they belong to us or, what’s more likely, to remind us that we belong to them!
Dogs know how to get what they want. Does a series of licks bring you joy, soften the tone of your voice or earn a good scratch behind the ear? Your dog will eventually put two and two together. A dog who learns that licking draws positive attention will use it to his advantage! If you’re working from home or binge-watching your favorite show, one thing you’re definitely not doing is playing with your dog. Dogs lick us to remind us where our focus should be!
Dogs lick their own wounds and, if you have a fresh scrape or bruise, chances are they’ll lick it, too. In earlier times, physicians and wise folk actually trained dogs to do this, believing that it encouraged healing. The truth is, a dog’s tongue has just as many bacteria as ours do but of different kinds. While we’re charmed that our dogs are trying to be helpful, they’re probably just curious about how our blood tastes! That’s far less charming.
Dog licks aren’t the same thing as kisses, but they can still be signs of affection or approval. If dogs lick us to get attention, they also lick to tell us when they’re getting the kind of attention they like. When I scratch Baby under her arms, I get long, slow licks. That’s when I know I’ve found exactly the right spot! Dogs are practically licked into life. Upon entering this strange world of ours, the first sensation newborn puppies feel is their mother’s nurturing tongue. Mom uses it to clear away her litter’s nostrils and encourages each puppy in turn to expand their tiny lungs and breathe the sweet air. From that moment onward, the licking never really stops.
Read more about dog licking and dog tongues on Dogster.com:
Melvin Peña is a writer, editor, social media manager and SEO specialist who spends most of his time in Durham, North Carolina. His interests include his dog, Baby (of course), art, hiking, urban farming and karaoke.