Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Dogs can mean a lot of different things when they lick. Believe it or not, licking is a form of communication for dogs, as well as something dogs use for grooming and eating. So it can serve multiple purposes. That makes it complicated and a little hard to figure out at times.
Licking begins in the whelping box, along with most of the behaviors that your dog displays. A mother dog licks her pups to stimulate them when they’re first born. Licking encourages their circulation, it rouses them, it removes the membrane covering them when they’re first born, and it stimulates them to nurse. Later on the mother will lick them to encourage their bowel movements and to wash them.
Of course, to someone observing a mother taking care of her pups, all of this probably looks like maternal love! And it may be, but it still serves many purposes.
As they get older, puppies will lick their mothers (and other adult dogs) around the lips to try to stimulate them to regurgitate partially digested food for them. This is quite normal for wolves and wild dogs, but our domesticated dogs can do it, too. This behavior -- licking a mother figure around the face -- may be retained later in life. Perhaps this is the reason why dogs try to lick people around the face? In some cases this could be true.
As communication, puppies will lick around the faces of their elders to show their submission. A dog may also lick their owner’s face for this same purpose.
Dogs also engage in licking behavior out of nervousness or because of feelings of anxiety. Licking may help to relieve the nervousness. A dog may lick as a way to try to appease someone higher in the “pack” and the pack may include their owner. If your dog is nervous or anxious, or fears that he has made you angry, he may try to lick around your face as a way to make up with you.
Dogs can also lick people as a way of getting attention. Like other behaviors, licking can be learned and become a habit if you reinforce it. For instance, if your dog licks you and you think it’s cute, you may laugh or pet your dog. This will encourage your dog to lick you again in the future because he’s getting positive attention (or any attention) for performing this behavior. If your dog is very socially bold he may become very pushy about this behavior and try to lick your face whenever he feels like it. It can be difficult to break this habit once it gets started.
Some dogs can lick things compulsively. This licking is usually directed at their own grooming but it can also include things such as woodwork or furniture. In some cases it may also include the owner. Dogs may lick toes, feet, hands and faces in a compulsive way. The Baxter & Bella training program teaches owners how to train their dog into a well-rounded member of their family, relieving & even eliminating unnatural stress & anxiety.