Why Do Dogs Close Their Eyes When They Lick

Common
Normal

Introduction

Doggie licks come with the territory. Your dog will use his tongue to communicate a lot of things to you and others, clean himself, as well as eat. But have you noticed that sometimes during a lick fest he will close his eyes? As humans, it is difficult to not put our own feelings and interpretations behind what a dog does, especially since they cannot tell you for themselves. It is important to look at what his species does, factor in the domestication, and then at times make an educated guess. Understanding why a dog licks can help you understand why he closes his eyes. As long as his licking does not seem obsessive or medically related, do not worry about the closed eyes. If it does seem to be a problem, seek the advice of a vet and perhaps trainer.

The Root of the Behavior

One of the first sensations a new pup feels is his mother licking him. Straight from the womb, a puppy needs to be cleaned and typically it is the birthing mother who sets in on the task. It is the first bonding moment between mother and child and sets the precedent for the pup that being licked feels good. There are many reasons why a dog will lick, most of which should cause no concern. When a dog licks, whether he is licking himself, another dog, or you, he may be licking for affection. This action alone is sweet, but it also causes endorphins to be released that bring pleasure to your dog. It gives him a feeling of comfort and relieves stress, similar to biting your nails or twirling your hair. When a dog feels good he will often close his eyes and bask in the moment of pleasure, choosing to focus on the sensation he is experiencing rather than on the stimulus around him. The same holds true for when he licks you in that he is bonding with you and getting the endorphins rush. A dog will lick to tell you that you are boss, and he will lick to simply get a taste of you. Any reaction you have will reinforce the licking, which will also make him feel good. 

Dogs will also lick because something hurts. Sometimes it is obvious in that he is licking between his toes because there is a burr or cut in there. But other times it could be because he is struggling with allergies, inflammation, joint or nerve pain, or an infection. He may also lick because he is dehydrated and his dry mouth drives him to lick. An infection in his mouth, gums, or teeth can cause him to lick often. Nausea may lead to excessive licking as well. While exceedingly rare, dogs that develop canine distemper may have seizures called “chewing gum fits” that resemble licking. Older dogs may lick often as a part of dementia. Dogs may lick as a part of obsessive-compulsive disorder and can cause granuloma lesions on their skin. Even dogs without OCD can lick from stress, separation, boredom, or anxiety.

Encouraging the Behavior

Closing his eyes while he licks is perfectly normal and should not cause any concern. If you feel he is greeting you with one too many kisses and you wish to decrease or eliminate the behavior, your best option is to ignore him. Any response to his kisses will be interpreted as reinforcement. Because licking you brings him joy, he will continue unless led to believe otherwise. However, if you get up, walk away, and ignore him every time he licks you, he will get the message that licking is not a good idea. Do not scold him or tell him to stop, as that is actually reinforcing the licking. A licensed behavioral trainer can help you modify and extinguish the behavior if ignoring your dog is not working for you. 

Licking for reasons other than pleasure or to say hello can be a problem if not handled properly. If you find your pet licking a particular area, investigate. Does he have a bur, cut, tick, or other object lodged in a part of his body? Does he have an open wound? Perhaps his teeth or gums are bothering him. If his licking is accompanied by nausea, or you witness him panting a lot, consider taking him to the veterinarian for an evaluation. It is essential that he visit the vet if you suspect any type of neurological problem such as seizures.

Other Solutions and Considerations

A bored or lonely dog can become anxious when left alone and those anxieties can lead to obsessive-compulsive licking. He will close his eyes for this as well, but he is not getting the pleasurable benefits anymore. By giving him lots of opportunities to get out and walk, run, and play, as well as challenging him mentally with daily ten-minute training you can stave off some of that anxiety. Leaving him a slow release food toy, as well as some fun toys, will occupy him and his mouth while you are gone. You can also consider hiring a dog walker to break up his day and give him some release. Proactive strategies will benefit you both.

Conclusion

Your dog closes his eyes when he licks because licking feels good. Licking releases endorphins, the feel-good hormone, and allows him a release of tension and stress. When he licks himself, you, or another dog, he feels good and this is perfectly normal. If you feel it is bothersome, try ignoring the behavior and it will most likely subside. A dog that licks a particular area over and over may have a medical issue or be showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Take him to the veterinarian if you feel he is dealing with more than pleasure seeking.