Dogs use their tongues to explore the world. A dog’s tongue is as important (and useful) to him as our eyes and hands are to us: they use their tongue to taste things, explore the presence of new people and animals, express submissiveness, and to let you know that he loves you and values your companionship and friendship.
Licking is a natural behavior for dogs, and most of the time, it isn’t anything to worry about: the odd lick from a warm, moist tongue on your hand or ankle is, at worst, tolerable (and, I must admit, I actually find it pretty adorable when my dog licks me ‘” but then again, he’s trained not to overdo it, he is after all only a little 5 pound Chihuahua).
Some dogs just take things too far though, and this is where problems can start. It’s not pleasant to be followed from room to room in your own home by a constant licking machine: some won’t let you get a moment’s rest, making dive-bombings of affection on your toes, ankles, calves – anywhere that flesh is exposed and available.
Plenty of dogs won’t restrict themselves to your skin either, and owners of these dogs will admit to the visible signs of dog saliva on their clothing. And once it’s dried, it’s there ’til the next laundry day: the physical evidence of a dog’s friendship is like egg white. It’s there, it’s dried on, and it’s not coming off until a combination of suds, hot water, and vigorous effort is applied.
And all this because your dog wants to say “I love you!”
But sometimes there’s a bit more to it than just plain affection. As with all animal behavior, the logic behind licking is usually more complex and subtle than you might think, it can have multiple meanings depending on the circumstances, your dog’s state of mind, and the other behaviors being exhibited at the same time. It’s partly up to you to determine the reasoning behind the licking action. And, since you know your dog better than anyone else, you’re the ideal person for the job.
If your dog is licking you because he’s feeling affectionate and wants to let you know, it’ll be pretty easy to figure out. His body language will be relaxed, the surrounding mood will generally be stress-free and happy: for example, when he licks you after you return home from a hard day at the office.
“Puppy love” is by far the most common cause of licking: it isn’t anything to worry about, and it’s simple to ‘˜cure’ him of the habit if the behavior is a problem for you.
Another not-infrequent reason for repetitive, owner-targeted licking is that your dog’s feeling anxious and stressed. If there are things happening in your dog’s life to cause him unhappiness or tension, he’ll often show it through obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and licking is a pretty common way of showing these. Some dogs will lick themselves, others will lick you – it’s really a case of individual preference.
It shouldn’t be too hard for you to pinpoint the cause of your dog’s less-than-relaxed mood: is he getting enough attention and mental stimulation, or is he cooped up inside for long hours each day by himself? Does he get enough exercise and outdoors time for sniffing, exploration, and general active playtime? Do you pay him lots of attention when you’re at home, or tend to greet him momentarily before rushing out the door again.
These are all things that you’ll need to consider. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the licking, and the overall quality of your dog’s life, you may need to make some general adjustments of your own.
Maybe you need to come home more often during the day. Perhaps you need to get up half an hour earlier in the morning to give him a pre-work walk, as a general rule of thumb, most dogs function best and are at their most relaxed with an hour and a half’s exercise each day (depending on their size). Or maybe you just need to spend more time with him in the evenings, playing, grooming, training, and just hanging out together.
Make sure you’re paying attention to his mood or attitude (does he seem content?) and his activity levels before you try to get rid of the licking as a problem behavior: even though he can’t talk, he can still use his tongue to try and tell you something, and this might be what’s happening here.
With all this said, most of the time excessive licking is simply due to excessive exuberance in your dog: he’s happy, he loves you, and he has to let you know right now.