I get to spend a lot of time observing different groups of dogs because of my work as a dog walker and dog rescue volunteer.
One of the behaviors I see quite often is one dog licking another in the face, sometimes obsessively.
For the most part, I see this as a “submissive” or even a nervous gesture from the dog doing the licking.
However, nothing is that simple with dogs and there are all sorts of reasons why they lick one another (and us) in the face.
I’ll list out my thoughts based on my own experience with dogs. This is not research-based. It’s just my own experiences and opinions. As always, jump in and add yours.
Why Does My Dog Lick other Dogs in the Face?
Here are just some of the possibilities:
To show submission to the “higher-ranking” dog.
When one dog licks another in the face, you’ll see that most often he is literally lowering his body position below the other dog, voluntarily lowering his own “status.” The other dog will typically allow the licking while holding his body tall and proud.
Plus, as you know, wolf pups will lick the muzzles of the adults to get them to regurgitate food (lovely).
While “submission” has become a naughty word in the dog world, social status is important among groups of dogs just as it is to groups of humans.
Many of our own social interactions involve subtle displays of “status” (or lack of).
Just today, I smiled and waved stupidly from my car as a guard let me into one of my clients’ gated communities. Isn’t that a form of subtle submission? I think so. I might as well have kissed her feet.
Showing affection to friends.
When dogs lick one another, it can also be a way to show affection, especially if the two dogs are friends. My dog Ace has a couple of buddies that he will lick in the face and they lick him back.
There is only a small group of close dog friends he will lick, and it doesn’t seem to be about status just “Hey! I’ve missed you! Nice to see you again!”
I imagine it’s similar to how I only hug certain people who I am more comfortable with. I don’t go around hugging everyone I know.
The dog smells food.
Let’s not over-complicate things. Sometimes the dog just smells food! One dog had a tasty snack and the other dog smells it.
I know I’ve been licked in the face plenty of times after my dog smells peanut butter or whatever I was eating.
The dog is reinforced for licking.
This is probably more for licking people in the face than other dogs. Some dogs get rewarded when they lick us because some of us enjoy it and give them attention. And even if we don’t like being licked, sometimes we give them attention anyway just to get them to stop.
The dog uses licking to get what she wants.
I’ve noticed that some dogs will actually begin to use the obsessive licking as a way to demand attention and manipulate other dogs (and people?). I’m not sure if they do this on purpose or if it just sort of happens.
Maybe the best example is my recent foster dog Lana. She would lick me in the face to, I assume, demand attention. She did so when I couldn’t block her, like when I was trying to tie my shoes. It forced me to pay attention to her.
Another example is a Lab puppy I used to walk.
She loved other dogs but would greet them by crouching on her belly and then frantically licking them in the face.
While she was still little, this worked well for her. Other dogs recognized her submissive gesture and tolerated her frantic energy. But as she got bigger and stronger, all of that energy started to overwhelm other dogs.
Not only would she crouch and lick but she would eventually start jumping all over them while trying to get them to play. It wasn’t exactly “dominant” but definitely a way to demand attention.
What is your take on this Lab’s behavior? Was she just awkward and nervous or was she actually trying to demand attention?
Do you have any other examples of why a dog would lick others in the face?
Should I allow my dog to obsessively lick other dogs?
If your dog licks other dogs in the face, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about unless she seems to be overwhelming or annoying other dogs.
If that’s the case, expect another dog to eventually snap or growl at her to basically tell her to “knock it off!”
While some licking is OK, especially from puppies and young dogs, it does get to be a bit much for some dogs when a large adolescent pup or adult dog just won’t quit.
If your dog seems to be annoying another dog with non-stop licking, just get your dog’s attention away from the other dog for at least a minute or two to give the other dog a break.
Unfortunately, excessive “submissive” gestures like licking can also bring out some “dominant” energy from other dogs (like humping).
I’m sure you’ve noticed how the most submissive, nervous dogs tend to get surrounded by other dogs when visiting a dog park or dog beach. I imagine the other dogs are investigating the nervous energy and then sometimes trying to control the energy. You can read my post about that here.
If your dog seems to be excessively nervous or submissive, just be careful at dog parks and start out by visiting at quieter times or setting up small play groups with one or two friends to help her build confidence and work on her social skills.
Now I want to hear from you.
Why do you think dogs lick one another in the face?
Did I miss any other reasons?
Related blog posts:
What does licking mean? (behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell)
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