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Are Dog Licks Really Kisses?

Girl kissing dog

Can your dog's enthusiastic licks represent a sign of affection?

Ever wonder what your dog is thinking when he slurps your face like a lollipop? Is he just saying hello—or planting the canine version of a kiss on your cheek? Although we may never know the real answer, it helps to understand the psychology of the lick.

As any dog owner knows, dogs lick often and for a variety of reasons. For example, mothers lick their puppies to clean them and stimulate their urination and defecation. From about six weeks of age, some pups lick their mom's face and lips when they want her to regurgitate food for them. This behavior is a remnant of their wild ancestry—it was easier for the mother to carry food in her stomach rather than dragging it back to the den in her mouth.

Pack members lick to communicate

As puppies grow older, they lick to groom themselves and their pack mates. It also becomes a way of welcoming others back into the pack and increasing the bonds between pack members.

Adult dogs lick as a sign of deference or submissiveness to a dominant pack member. The dog doing the licking usually lowers its body to make itself smaller, and looks up, adding to the effect of subordinate behavior. The dog receiving the face licks shows its dominance by standing tall to accept the gesture, but doesn't return the favor.

Interpreting your dog's lick

Now when your dog tries to lick your face, you might have a better idea of what he's trying to communicate. He may simply be letting you know that he's glad to see you. Or he may be hungry and asking for a snack. Obviously, you won't regurgitate some food at that signal, but you might give him a treat.

But can his enthusiastic licks also represent a sign of affection? Here's one way to look at it. A dog's behavior can be encouraged with positive reinforcement. So if a dog licks his owner's face—either out of instinct, anxiety, or just because his owner's face tastes salty—and that action is greeted with positive attention, such as hugs and human kisses, he'll want to repeat the behavior. While it's probably not a "kiss," you can bet it's a sign that your dog thinks you're pretty great.

  • The Serious Benefits of Play

    dog carrying a frisbee in its mouth

    Playing and having fun helps to eliminate stress from your life—and the same holds true for your dog. In fact, incorporating various forms of play into your dog's daily routine is vital to helping him develop a healthy, loving personality.

    The benefits of play

    Here are some of the ways that playing and having fun is important:

    • Physical health. Active play helps keep your dog's heart healthy, keeps the joints lubricated, and improves his overall balance and coordination.
    • Mental health. Games with rules force your dog to use his brain, not just his body. This can help keep his mind sharp and focused.
    • Social skills. When your dog plays with other dogs and other people, it helps improve his overall social skills. He learns basic rules and how to play by them.
    • Bonding. Even if it's only for a few minutes a day, playing with your dog helps strengthen the bond between you.
    • Your health. What better way to alleviate the stress of a busy workday and get a bit of exercise than to come home and play with your dog? It's a win-win for both of you.

    How to play with your dog

    There are right ways—and wrong ways—to play. The most important thing to remember is that you're the boss. You decide what games should be played and you set the rules. This helps establish your credibility as the pack leader. It also helps keep your dog from getting overly excited and out of control while you play. If your dog does become difficult to manage, simply put a stop to the game until he calms down again.

    When you're teaching your dog a new game, reward him when he does well. Remember, rewards don't have to be just treats. You can also reward him with his favorite toys or lots of hugs and praise.

    When you start out teaching your dog a new game, keep it simple and go through the game slowly, until your dog fully grasps the rules. Also, wait until he fully understands one game before you teach him a new one, otherwise it will end up confusing him.

    Playtime tips

    • Avoid games like keep away, wrestling, or tug-of-war. Those games encourage biting or dominant, aggressive behavior.
    • Stay in control of the game at all times. Show your dog that you're the pack leader, not just another member of the pack. Retrieval games are good at teaching control.
    • Don't include your body or clothing as part of any game.
    • Incorporate the SIT or DOWN and STAY commands in every game.
    • You decide when it's time to end the game, not your dog. The best time to stop the game is when your dog is still eager to play.
    • If, for some reason, your dog doesn't seem to understand the game at some point, go back to the beginning, or simply leave it and try again a few days later. Don't get angry if you're dog isn't "getting it" right away. Remember it's supposed to be a fun experience for both of you!

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