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Dogs lick for a number of reasons, some of which are purely biological: Bitches lick their newborn pups to arouse them from their postpartum daze.
Dogs, like people, engage in a number of "displacement behaviors" when nervous or stressed, and many of these behaviors involve self-grooming. Dogs do not experience the stop-go conflict of the traffic lights but they do have their own share of dilemmas. Some sensitive dogs in stressful environments compulsively groom themselves to the point of self-injury. I don't believe dogs express their sometimes quite profound feelings for their owners by licking or "kissing." In fact, I don't believe dogs really "kiss" at all. In this situation, licking serves to remove clingy membranes from the pup, freeing him up to move and stimulating him to breathe.


For some dogs, it seems that they engage in face licking because they can get away with it and because it gets a rise out of the person. Perhaps some dogs are so awed by their owners that they feel the need to signal their ongoing deference by face licking. The motivation for face licking appears to vary for different dogs and different circumstances. We vets expect our more anxious patients to begin nervously licking their own lips as they enter the clinic. If the recipient of the licking interprets this behavior as "make-up kisses," that's just fine.
When licking is performed for such a reason, it may be component of the "center stage," attention-demanding behavior of dominant dogs.


Whatever the outward expression of compulsive licking, the mechanics underlying the disorder are the same. Licking their own lips, limbs, and trunk removes traces of the last meal that would otherwise begin to decompose and smell. Quite apart from the hygienic aspects of this behavior, it also serves to keep dogs relatively odor free and thus olfactorily invisible to their prey.



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