By John Gilpatrick
Humans have nervous ticks—things we do for no discernable reason other than the fact that we’re loaded with energy and have hundreds of moving parts.
We bite our nails. We drum our fingers. We tap our toes. We whistle and hum.
Dogs aren’t equipped with the appropriate anatomy or mental capacity to do most of these things. So sometimes they lick—a lot.
Dr. Megan Maxwell, a certified applied animal behaviorist, calls this type of licking a “stereotypical” behavior, meaning it both doesn’t serve a purpose and isn’t social. “Unless we see a reliable trigger, we see [licking] as a symptom of anxiety,” she says.
When present, these triggers can say a lot. What and when a dog licks can tell owners why he licks or what he’s feeling when he licks. It can mean your dog is hungry, happy, sad, sick, or yes, nervous. Read on for some of the most commonly licked items and what licking them signifies.
Why Do Dogs Lick People?
Maxwell says when a dog licks you or someone else in your household will tell you what that behavior means. “Sometimes, it’s nothing more than sensory stimulation. If a dog licks you right when you come out of the shower, it’s because you’re wet or because the lotion you just put on smells good.”
There can also be an affection component to licking behavior. This starts when dogs are puppies. Mothers lick their young during the first couple of week of their infancy in order to allow them to urinate and defecate, Maxwell says, so there’s something innate that tells dogs that licking is an act of love and caregiving.
Puppies will lick their human owners as much as the owners allow them, and this will carry forward for most of their lives. If you don’t like your dog licking you, you have to walk away or stop the behavior early on, says Maxwell. All it might take is a few minutes of you leaving the room when your dog starts licking you for him to realize this behavior is driving you away.
That said, Maxwell says licking isn’t always a detrimental behavior for either your dog (the licker) or you (the recipient of the licking). If you’re fine with being covered in slobber because it makes you feel closer to your dog and him feel closer to you, let him go crazy! However, there have been some cases of dogs transmitting infections via licking, so if you have open wounds on your skin or your immune system is compromised it is probably best to discourage licking.
Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?
Cheri Lucas, a dog behavior specialist and rescuer, suggests that the only acceptable reason (and the most common reason) for dogs to lick their paws is because something is on or in them. “Maybe it’s just water they’re licking off or—I live in California, so my dogs sometimes get foxtail stuck in their paws,” she says.
Check to see if there is something stuck in your dog’s paws if you see him licking them. If not, there’s a good chance he’s dealing with a medical issue.
“The second most common reason why dogs lick their paws is allergies,” Lucas says. Yeast infections—which are primarily caused by an allergy—tend to begin either in a dog’s ears or in his paws. If you notice this type of licking in addition to other symptoms like sores, redness, or a slimy, often smelly discharge, have your dog checked out by his vet right away. If it’s bad enough, Lucas says, dogs might lick their paws until they draw blood, so don’t wait too long.
Why Do Dogs Lick Faces?
Maxwell suggests that the notion of a dog “kissing” you is sometimes inaccurate. Dogs who lick faces aren’t always being affectionate. “If it’s your face being licked, it could be related to something you just ate.”
Some dogs, however, will lick the inside of other dogs’ mouths when they’re playing together. “That’s something many dog owners will look at and think, ‘Oh, it’s like they’re French kissing. They love each other,’ but dogs who do this tend to eventually fight with each other,” says Maxwell. While she hasn’t formally studied this topic, Maxwell thinks this behavior tends to lead to one dog nipping the gums of the other, and therefore, she encourages owners to break up that behavior, even if both dogs seem fine with it.
Why Do Dogs Lick the Carpet and the Couch?
If you see your dog licking the carpet or licking the couch, this is where the behavior tends toward the stereotypical (or behaviorally problematic), according to Maxwell. “Unless you just dropped food, there’s no normal reason why a dog should regularly lick the carpet or furniture.”
If it’s anxiety-driven, Maxwell says you ought to notice certain trends or other triggers. For instance, if your dog starts licking something whenever the doorbell rings, that’s likely a fear or anxiety based behavior. In an instance like this, you might be able to make him feel more comfortable by putting him in his bed with his favorite soft toy. But, she says, if you notice him panting or with furrowed eyes when he licks the same spot in the carpet or on the couch obsessively, it’s time to have him checked out. A recent study has also linked excessive dog licking with medical, especially gastrointestinal, disorders, so a routine veterinary exam is the best place to start. Assuming everything checks out, you can begin to tackle the problem from a behavioral perspective.
What Else Do Dogs Lick? And When Should You Worry About Licking?
Lucas says that if your dog is licking something other than what’s listed here, it’s likely either sensory or indicative of a problem. “You’ll occasionally see a dog licking a window or a tile floor,” she says. “That’s probably because something was spilled there or because it’s cool or they like the texture.”
Again, if it’s something your dog does with regularity and the behavior seems abnormal (i.e. they lick the same spot on the window over and over again), consult a professional to discuss treatment options.