Dog Licks: Love Or Obsession?

Within days, many of us will be winging cross-country to share holiday cheer with loved ones or hosting gatherings of our own filled with punch and pomp.

We will greet or be greeted along with everyone else in our clan - including the pooches. Many among our four-legged families will sport a winter coif and a wagging tongue. While Aunt Shirley bastes the turkey in the kitchen, Frisky tries to baste all comers with kisses.

Some among us will recoil in disgust or embarrassment while others will revel in Frisky’s facial. Before arguments for or against this practice are flung about the room, it may be helpful to understand why a number of dogs are hell-bent on licking the freckles right off of you.

Ernest licking starts soon after the litter spills from the womb. It emerges as a social tool puppies use to greet and gather information about mommy and the rest of the brood. Often it is a gesture of appeasement to an elder or dog of “higher rank,” a signal that they pose no threat. Most believe it is - at least in part - an artifact from wolfen days when it was easier for mom to barf out dinner when stimulated by her pup’s lick to her lips than it was to drag a kill back to the den.

As pups mature, the frequent licking usually gives way to less in-your-face social behaviors such as side-to-side crotch and butt-sniffing. However, some young dogs will persist in feverish snout and lip licking despite corrections by dog elders. This kind of licking can be reflective of the petulant child who wants to get his way, right NOW! This is considered bad form in the canine world and is often met by a snappy retort.

Dogs like to lick us for many of the same reasons they like to lick other dogs. On the plus side, it is a show of affection and a nod of respect toward us as the keepers of calm and abundance. Part of their show of appreciation is to give us a grooming unlike anyone might get at the spa (who needs mud packs and cucumbers!). Numerous oral and nasal receptors allow dogs to “sense” our emotions and revel in our happiness or pull us out of despair.

Of course, licking has its self-serving motives for the dog as well. Quite simply, we taste good to them! They delight in our salty-sweet sweat as much as we delight in pecan pie. The mere act of licking is soothing to dogs; it provides one a way to self-regulate. And dogs love to be close to our faces to feast on our pheromones.

For some people, any licking by a dog is too much. But even for those of us who welcome pooch-to-pooch and pooch-to-person licking, there are some signs to be on guard for.

Incessant, desperate-type licking can be a sign of anxiety or a gastro-intestinal problem. Being vigilant for changes in environment and/or routine could offer clues to the former, while a trip to the vet is required to diagnose the latter.

As responsible pet owners/parents, it is up to us to detect anxiety- or obsessive-driven licking and remediate accordingly for everyone’s sake.

When does licking cross the line?  Blogger Colleen of has observed some not-so-well-heeled youngsters “herding” other dogs around with their tongues. Seeing more mascara on your dog’s tongue than on your guest’s frowning face is another clue.

If obsessive dog-on-dog tonguing is noted, immediate redirection to another enticing activity is recommended. Call the dog “off” from licking rather than correcting by restraint as the latter only intensifies the longing to lick.

To curb dog-on-person licking requires more finesse. Only you know how much is too much given your personal preference and knowledge of your social network’s sensibilities. You may want to confine facial licking to yourself only and for a certain duration. If you truly love your dog but are averse to licking, facial snuggles and ear rubs can be equally satisfying displays of affection.

Training your dog to kiss on command is one way to ensure that guests with mixed attitudes toward licking leave your home content and grateful for their time with you - and every member of your family.