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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.
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