If there is one thing that dogs are known for, it is the slobbering licks they give their owners. Licking is a form of communication. So, when your dog licks you, he could be doing so to show you affection, call your attention to something such as his need to quench his thirst, tell you he knows you are the alpha, or he may simply want to be friends. The appropriate response when your dog licks you, which is also the response he expects, is a reward such as a pat, a belly rub, or a treat. But what if instead of these responses you decide to lick your dog back? You might expect that he will enjoy being licked by you but instead of enjoyment, he will respond with aggression. So why do dogs like licking but not being licked back? We discuss this in detail below.
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The Root of the Behavior
Dogs are either submissive or dominant and within a pack of canines, submissive dogs lick the dominant members for protection or to be allowed to eat. The same dynamics apply in a domestic situation where when your dog licks you, he expects his submissiveness to be rewarded in one form or the other. A dominant dog cannot lick an underdog as a show of submission. So, if you lick your dog, it is akin to a dominant pack member licking a submissive dog. You, therefore, create confusion when you behave in this manner. Confusion raises levels of frustration and fear and will eventually result in aggression. It is also likely that in the eyes of your dog, you are giving up your dominant position by licking him so that where he had never been aggressive with you before, he will suddenly see you as a submissive and respond with aggression.
If your dog is licking you in anticipation of a treat, he can get mad if none is forthcoming. To better understand this behavior, let’s for a moment explore how human beings react to anticipation. Imagine a scenario where you have taken certain actions in your place of work and said actions make your company a lot of money. Everyone, including your bosses, congratulate you and there’s even talk of a hefty bonus and a promotion. Your boss calls you to his office and you can barely contain yourself because of how much anticipation you have built up. But when you get to his office, you receive no promotion or bonus but alas, he gives you a pat on the back, tells you he is proud of you, and that the company thanks you. There is only one thing you can feel at this point. Rage. This is the same thing your dog feels when he expects a reward and none is forthcoming. When you ask him to sit and he obeys or when he lets you lead instead of pulling and tugging, he does all these things because at the end of the day he anticipates you will give him a reward. So, if after all that he gets a lick instead of getting a reward, he is thinking, “How dare you!”
Encouraging the Behavior
You should never lick your dog. Dog behavior is steeped in hundreds if not thousands of years of evolution hence licking, to a dog, has an entirely different meaning to what licking means to a human being. If you lick your dog, you are communicating in his language and not yours. It is important to accept that dogs and humans cannot communicate in the same language. As a dog owner, you have to constantly interpret what your dog is trying to tell you. You must also, according to veterinary behaviorist Dr. Jeff Nichol, understand how power dynamics work in a pack of dogs.
If your household has more than one dog, licking a dominant dog in the presence of other pack members is a recipe for disaster. Not only are you telling the top dog that he now outranks you, you are also showing the other dogs that you have no position of power. When your dominant dog believes you outrank him, he will not misstep where other dogs are concerned. But after you tip the balance of power by licking him, he will be ruthless with the other pack members since he knows he doesn’t answer to you. Similarly, before you lavish any king of attention on a submissive dog, the dominant dog has to “allow” it or he will feel his position in the pack is threatened. These power dynamics are ingrained in dogs and are hard to change.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Licking your pet, while fun and probably a source of comfort for you, can cause serious infections in humans. Research published in a 2012 issue of the medical journal, ‘Clinical Infectious Diseases’ showed that people who kiss their dogs can contract Pasteurella multocida, a bacterium present in over 50% of dogs and 75% of cats. The cases studied in the research seemed to indicate that transmission of the bacterium likely occurs if the said animal is sick. Dr. Leni K. Kaplan, a lecturer at Cornell University’s Veterinary College, also cautions against other microorganisms such as salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, and Clostridium which can be passed from dogs to humans and cause severe infections of the stomach and intestine. Instead of licking or kissing your dog, you can show him affection in other ways such as cuddling, giving him a belly or back rub, patting him, or giving him treats.
Dogs understand the dominance order and they live by it. Outside of a pack of dogs, your dog sees you as the pack leader so do not shatter his reality by changing the script. Besides, if he suddenly believes that no one can discipline him, you will have serious discipline issues to deal with.