Tuesday, March 16, 2010
By Linda Cole
I have a dog who loves to lick legs and feet anytime she catches an unsuspecting bare foot or hand dangling from a chair. I also have one who will sit right beside me while I'm watching TV or working at the computer. Every now and then out of the blue, she'll slurp me on the side of the face. Do dogs lick us because we taste like salt, are they giving us a kiss, or is it more complicated with no clear answers?
Puppies are groomed by their moms to keep them clean and help stimulate body functions. This is warm and gentle, and feels good to them. The pleasant feeling of their mother's grooming leaves them with positive memories they carry into adulthood, and they may be trying to share those positive feelings with us.
We know wolf puppies and adolescents greet the adults returning from a hunt by eagerly gathering around them and licking them on the mouth and chin to induce a regurgitated meal from them. Licking is also considered a sign of respect, and is a submissive behavior of welcome given to the alpha and those who are higher in their social order.
No one really knows the exact reason why dogs lick us. A lick on the hand or face will usually cause us to scratch them behind their ears or pet them. So perhaps their lick is asking us to return their “kiss” with affection of our own. Often times, a lick is followed by tail wagging and a submissive posture in their body language which results in a playful reaction from us. So the lick could be their way of respectfully asking us to pay attention to them.
When we return home, most dog owners are greeted by their dogs with happy tails waving. Ears are laid back telling us how happy they are to see us. Their eyes sparkle as they wait for us to acknowledge them. In a way, they are greeting us with the same excitement wolf pups use to greet the returning hunters to their home. But they aren't looking for us to share food from the hunt, they are just wanting to say “Hi, I'm really glad you're home.”
Licking may be a subtle social activity and could be part of the body language of dogs. It's thought that wolves and wild dogs lick themselves and each other to help remove any debris left over after a meal. This helps keep them clean as well as removes odors that could let their prey know they are around. Even though our dogs don't need to disguise themselves or us from prey, it's possible dogs lick us because of an instinctive need for cleanliness that has been passed along from their wild cousins. But it could also be a stress reliever or something they do to help break up their boredom.
More than likely, dogs lick us to show their respect and by doing so, they are submitting to us and saying they understand we are their leader. I know in my pack, the dogs who lick the most are the lower ranking members in our social order. Most of the time when they lick us on the face, leg, feet or hands, they receive positive reactions from us. So in a way, we encourage their “kisses” by our response.
If we have been sweating, they may lick us because of the salt; however, no one knows this for sure. Dogs will lick interesting and intriguing smells they come across whether it's on us or somewhere else. Dogs may lick us because they smell our face, hand or body lotion. They may like the smell of the soap we use or maybe we just have a food smell that settled on our skin.
If a dog is nervous or stressed out for any reason, they may lick their lips and bite on their feet or legs while they groom themselves. Pay attention to compulsive licking because it could be signaling the dog has something that's upsetting them or there could be an underlying medical condition that is causing them to be obsessed with licking. A dog who licks furniture, rugs, concrete, walls, floors, etc. could be bored, but there could be something else going on. A trip to the vet can help you understand why your dog may be licking everything in sight.
In the long run, it doesn't really matter why dogs lick us. I take it as something they find warm and sociable. It's their way of showing us how much they care about us, and I'll certainly reward their affection anytime they want to share it.
Read more articles by Linda Cole