Why Do Dogs Lick? The Evolving Meaning of This Loving Gesture
Each night, as my mom sits on the couch and flips on the Hallmark Channel, our dog Melo faithfully waddles into the living room, sits on the rug beside her, and—at various points throughout the movie—licks at her feet. Melo is a 7-year-old rescue, and he’s quite affectionate: He loves to cuddle with my parents (who, as empty-nesters, have adopted Melo as their new child), and at some point the sporadic foot-licking simply became part of his nightly ritual.
Melo’s foot-licking has always struck me as an odd act of affection, but it made me wonder why dogs lick in the first place. Is this really a way for dogs to say, "I love you," as my mom has always guessed? Or is there more to the story? As it turns out, it’s a mix of both.
According to Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Dr. Mary Burch, dogs originally began licking as a food-seeking practice, but the act has since evolved into a way of greeting and expressing love.
Dr. Burch explains that human skin is slightly salty, so by licking you, your dog could be enjoying your salt. This is particularly true after you’ve been exercising or sweating. Ever wonder why Fido pays you more attention after you’ve hit the gym? It’s probably because your skin is nice and salty.
But licking can mean more than just acquiring nutrients. As humans have developed deep bonds and attachments with their canine companions, licking has increasingly grown as a way for dogs to express their love. “Licking can be a sign of affection,” Dr. Burch tells the American Kennel Club. “It might also give a dog a feeling of security and comfort, just as the dog had when licked by its mother in the litter.”
Although licking is not inherently problematic, human discomfort can be reason enough to try to limit your dogs’ kisses. How do you know when a dog’s licking has gone overboard? “If your dog is licking themselves, you, or objects excessively, to the point that it seems like a self-stimulatory behavior, this might be a sign of anxiety, boredom, or pain,” writes Mary Robins for the American Kennel Club.
To curb excessive licking, first pay a visit to the veterinarian to ensure the licking isn’t due to a medical problem. If it’s merely a symptom of a love overdose, Dr. Burch recommends deflecting your dog’s energy when they’re licking: “When they lick, switch up the activity.” Playing ball, trick training, or using an interactive puzzle are three techniques Dr. Burch suggests to distract Fido from your salty skin.
At the end of the day, remember: Your dog’s licking because they love you! (And, as always, they probably want a treat.)