Lip licking is a type of dog communication. A dog who licks his lips is using body language to let you know how he’s feeling.
What Is Lip Licking in Dogs?
Lip licking is just what it sounds like: a dog licking his lips. If you notice a dog is licking his lips when there’s no food involved, he’s probably trying to send a message.
What It Means When Dogs Lick Their Lips
Dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas coined the phrase “calming signals” to refer to lip licking and similar dog behaviors. Lip licking is also often referred to as an appeasement gesture. Next time, break down the action or behavior into smaller segments so it’s easier for your dog to learn. It’s usually because there will be something going on around them that they perceive as a threat. Dogs who are licking their lips are usually sending the message that they are worried.
Dogs lick their lips to appease and soothe a person or animal they see as a threat in order to ward off aggression. An example of this can be seen in dogs who are scolded when their owners return home to find the dog has had an accident in the house. A dog might not connect the scolding to relieving himself indoors. Instead, he sees his owner as a threat. The owner may end up being yelling and looming over him. The dog may offer an appeasement gesture by licking his lips and averting his gaze. This is the canine’s way of saying that he isn’t a threat to the person behaving in an aggressive manner. This appeasement gesture could be the dog’s first attempt to remove the threat, like to stop his owner from yelling at him or to get another dog to stop barking at him. Many owners notice this during training sessions when their dogs are having trouble understanding what is being taught. If you notice lip licking, yawning, scratching, or ground-sniffing while training your dog, it might be time to stop the instruction session. A dog cannot learn new things when stressed. To end on a positive note, ask your dog to do something simple he already knows, like sit. Reward with a treat and praise, then end the session. Try playing with your pet for a little while to bond and help your dog relax.
Another important possible reason for excessive lip licking in dogs is really a health-related issue. A dog might lick his lips due to nausea, dental disease, or mouth pain. Look for other signs of illness and keep a close eye on your canine. When in doubt, contact your vet.
What to Do if Your Dog Is Licking His Lips
While lip licking is usually considered a submissive gesture meant to prevent aggression from escalating, it is still a sign that a dog is stressed and uncomfortable with a situation.
Sometimes dogs exhibit appeasement gestures like lip licking and yawning when they are frustrated or confused. However, this doesn’t mean that the dog won’t become defensive if the perceived dangerening situation continues. A defensive dog may resort to aggressive behavior if appeasement gestures are unsuccessful.
If you see a dog licking his lips, back off and allow him some space to get more comfortable. Try to determine the source of the dog’s concern and remove it, if possible. This can save you from a potential bite from a dog who feels the need to defend himself.
If your dog is lip-licking at the vet or another place that makes him nervous, try to redirect him in a positive manner. You can ask him to do a trick and then reward him for complying. Avoid comforting your pet when he is uneasy as this only reinforces his fear or anxiety.
If your dog is lip-licking during a training session, it’s probably best to find a way to quickly end on a positive note (ask your dog to do something he knows and wrap up the session). Dogs exhibit certain behaviors and actions when they feel stressed or uncomfortable. This is sometimes called shaping behaviors.
If you often find your dog exhibiting lip-licking behavior when there is no clear threat and no food around, you may want to investigate further. Perhaps there is something in your pet’s environment that can be making him uneasy. Remember that there may even be a health problem, such as nausea or oral discomfort. When in doubt, take your dog to the vet for a check-up.