At first glance, the act of a dog licking its owner appears only to suggest affection and familiarity. However, the answer to why dogs lick is not as simple as people may think, rather, there are multiple meanings that can be attributed to one of the most instinctive gestures of man’s best friend. Dr. Maria Grazia Calore, veterinary surgeon, and expert in pet behaviour, explains.
When dogs lick other dogs: their aims and messages
Slow and somewhat noisy licks characterise the special contact between a bitch and her young puppies. A mother’s licks combine caresses, care and a practical cleaning tool all in one gesture. Demonstrating an intrinsic, primal, maternal instinct, they lick their puppies to stimulate urination and defecation and then lick them clean afterwards to eliminate odours that could attract predators. Yet, it’s not only mothers that lick: in a bid to request care and food, puppies also reciprocate the gesture. In fact, the action of puppies licking their mother’s lips stimulates an automatic reflex in the mother to regurgitate her meal. This partially digested food is an ideal diet for weaning.
It is not only the mother-pup relationship in which dogs lick other dogs however. When a dog licks another adult dog – just like in a wolf pack – it is trying to communicate deference to a pack member it considers superior or “dangerous”. In fact, submissive gestures such as licking the nose or lips of the dominant dog can get the ‘lower-ranking’ dog out of trouble in tense situations or times of conflict.
When dogs lick humans: not just affection
Many owners will be familiar with the situation when they return home after a few hours of absence and get smothered with ‘kisses’ as their dog licks their face, hands and feet enthusiastically. Of course, the dog may simply be delighted to see them and is welcoming them home, however the pet could also be asking the owner to take care of it, in particular by giving it food.
Furthermore, we can assign a slightly different meaning to occasions when our dog is keen to lick our sweaty hands or feet. In this case, our dog is probably trying to understand our mood through pheromones that we emit in our sweat. The tongue does not capture these chemicals, but instead, the licking serves to convey the signals to the vomeronasal organ appointed to their decoding.
In the light of these explanations, we now understand that our dog will lick for a variety of reasons, which depend on the situation at hand: including, as our expert, Dr. Calore, points out, when it licks the vet: it is not showing affection, but it is trying to communicate with him, asking him not to hurt it!