Everything You Wanted to Know About Why Dogs Lick

Here's what to know about why dogs lick themselves, other dogs, and you—and what's normal and what's not.

With the absence of opposable thumbs, dogs rely on their mouths for much more than just eating, breathing, and barking. Tongues are used for showing affection and as vehicles for discovery; dogs lick to taste, explore, scratch an itch, and soothe wounds. Here are some answers to help pet parents understand why dogs lick.

dog licking his male owner on the face

Dogs Lick You to Show Affection

Licking is how mothers clean, nurture, and bond with their pups. And that loving instinct carries over to mature dogs showing affection for their humans, fellow dogs, and other pets by licking.

Beyond just giving you "kisses," your dog may really like the taste of your skin—whether it's salty from sweat, sweet with the lotion you just applied, or offers lingering flavors from the food you recently ate or handled.

Dogs Lick Themselves to Groom

Licking and gentle chewing are parts of dogs' grooming process. You might notice your pup licking his paw and then using it to get to places his tongue won't reach (similar to a cat), or licking his private areas. In most cases, licking his nether regions is simply grooming. But if you notice your dog giving his anus a little too much attention, he may have full, impacted, or compacted anal glands. In this case, make an appointment with your vet.

Dogs Lick Their Wounds to Clean Them

Dogs also lick themselves to help heal injuries, soothe sore spots, and alleviate itchiness.

You may notice your pup licking or gently chewing his skin or paws. Keep an eye on this behavior because it may be a sign of fleas or ticks (on the skin) or allergies to the environment or his food (itchy paws).

When Is My Dog's Licking Excessive?

Licking can be a sign of boredom, an anxiety disorder, or even an acquired habit. Anne Conover, DVM, owner of Rolling Hills Veterinary Clinic, a mixed animal practice in Madison County, Iowa, says, "If your dog is licking so much or so aggressively that he starts to cause trauma—wounds on the skin, skin redness, chronic irritation from the incessant moisture on the skin, hair loss, bad odors, and other complications—then it is a problem." Those self-inflicted wounds can worsen quickly, she says. "Any time a dog is licking frequently enough to cause a wound or reddened skin, a veterinarian should do a thorough exam to look for the cause or check for an underlying problem."

How Do I Stop My Dog From Licking So Much?

If your dog is not licking to the point of self-harm, his behavior may be perfectly natural. But if his habits leave you (or the furniture) dripping in slobber and are bothersome to you, use positive reinforcement training practices to curb the tongue bath. "Be positive but persistent in encouraging acceptable licking as you define it in your household," Conover says. "Redirecting to a toy or chew treat is helpful."

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