Dogs like to lick our faces, a behavior that seems disturbing for many dog owners and particularly non-dog owners. However, this behavior is a demonstration of friendliness, a pacifying gesture, a hand (though not literally) reaching for peace. It’s a compliment in dog language: “I like you; you can be my friend.”
The behavior originates in the neonatal and juvenile periods. Newborn suckle and lick. A bit older pups lick everything as a way of gathering information about their world. Licking our faces may give our dogs much more information than we can imagine about who we are and how we feel.
Pups lick one another, a behavior which seems to make both donor and recipient relax because it is an undemanding activity. Grooming and self-grooming, which also include licking, are pleasant and bonding practices as well.
Canine mothers lick their pups to keep them clean and to stimulate their urination, defecation, and maybe even digestion.
When the pups become a little older and begin eating solid food, it is common for them to lick the lips of the adults, a behavior which should elicit their regurgitation of food recently consumed, a good source of nutrition for the youngsters. Even though not as widespread as when Canis lupus familiaris were mainly hunters, this regurgitation behavior is not uncommon among our more scavenger like domestic dogs if we give them the opportunity to live a relatively independent dog life.
Pacifying behavior is, for the most, behavior that originally has essential survival and well-being functions, and later shows these same functions, though in different areas and with different outcomes. For example: licking produced food regurgitation, licking produces friendly behavior.
Next time a dog licks your face, you do not need to be too terrified or disgusted. Just close your eyes, yawn, and turn your head away. That shows in dog language that you accept its offer of friendship.
By the way, don’t be too afraid either of the germs you may get when your dog licks you—they are not worse than those we get from kissing one another.
Animal Training My Way—The Merging of Ethology and Behaviorism by Roger Abrantes.
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