Tongues in the animal kingdom mean a lot more than they do to you or I. Dogs are perpetual lickers, whether it’s using their wet instrument on themselves or on others.

The question is, what’s causing this behavior: what does it mean, and how should you respond to it – if at all?

Let’s unpack the intention behind those licks and get to the bottom of a commonly asked question: why do dogs lick so often?

Reason number one: It’s a natural way of showing affection

Dogs use their tongues to show their love for humans and other animals too. More than that, they’ll often lick us after we’ve eaten, in part because there’s microscopic leftover food around our mouths they’re mopping up and enjoying (true story).

Reason number two: It’s a grooming technique

The saliva a dog produces can kill bacteria, giving their tongues, in effect, healing properties. They groom themselves using this measure and keep their coats clean in the process.

Reason number three: It’s a means of getting your attention

When your dog is repeatedly licking you, it usually means one of two things: they’re glad you’re around – in which case you can pet them to respond in turn, or move away if it gets annoying – or they need something, like food or water, or a chance to get outdoors. Keep an eye open for these sorts of things as you try to read between the lines.

Still, doggy licking isn’t always a sign that things are rosy.

Help: my dog is continually licking his paws and coat

  1. Like humans, dogs develop behavioral tics that could point towards separation anxiety or general anxiety. If your dog is “over-grooming” consider the environment he’s in. Has there been a change recently? Has your dog got a settled routine, a good diet, a place it can call its own? Have you introduced new pets into the home recently? These factors can all play a role. If you’re worried, take him to an expert, safe in the knowledge there are a myriad of treatments out there to reduce anxiety. 

  2. The other consideration is that your dog is suffering from a skin disease or allergy and is trying to clean the wound or alleviate itchiness. Investigate shampoos designed to treat skin irritation. Allergies are a very common cause of this problem, and dust and airborne pollens can wreak havoc with a dog’s coat. Again, take him to an expert if the problem persists, and especially if you notice any sort of wound with a discharge, or patches of discolored skin.

In the end, it’s normal for a dog to spend a good portion of its day getting its paws and coat clean. As an owner, monitor him and if you notice an uptick in this sort of behavior, only then start taking notice.

Finally, a common question that gets asked all the time…

…Is it OK to let my dog lick my face?

The jury’s out on this one, though plenty of experts suggest you shouldn’t. Dogs that are host to parasites can give you a nasty rash on your skin with one swish of their tongue. On the other hand, we live in a world full of microscopic invaders, and our own bodies are ground zero for any number of bacteria, so provided you keep your dog clean and feed them a good, balanced diet, you’re not likely to have much to worry about.

And that’s it. While dogs primarily use their sense of smell to view the world, their tongues are an important tool in their communication arsenal, and a handy means of saying hi once in a while.