Lip Licking in Dogs, What does it mean?

Recently I was contacted by one of my adopters from a dog I fostered last year.  She’s worried because her dog is constantly lip licking.  He’s been doing it pretty much since she got him.  He did it occasionally for the month that he lived here too.  This dog, in particular, had also came from a not so great situation.  He had been mostly neglected by the family for years.  They gave him up, but kept the other dogs, and had just gotten a new kitten.  But that’s beside the point, and just a pet peeve of mine. But due to his years of neglect, and who knows what else, I believe his lip licking has become a compulsive habit.

Read on to find out more about lip licking and dogs.

Lip Licking in Dogs, What does it mean?

Lip licking in dogs in pretty common. It’s a type of communication, he’s letting you know how he is feeling. If your dog is licking his lips, and he hasn’t just been eating or drinking, he’s most likely trying to tell you something.  Sending you a message.

Dogs will lick their lips for a variety of different reasons, each one a message to you as to how he’s feeling at the moment.

Lip licking to calm or appease

Some trainers refer to it, and certain other behaviors, as “calming signals” or “appeasement gestures”.  But it basically means that dogs who are lip licking feel stressed, or uncomfortable.  They feel that something going on around them is a perceived threat.

Dog lick their lips, trying to soothe or appease the person or animal that they see as a threat, and to ward off aggression.  If you yell at your dog, the may start lip licking to appease you, thus the term “appeasement gestures”.  It’s the dogs way of communicating that he isn’t a threat to you.

What to do:

Lip licking is usually the first appeasement gesture that dogs will exhibit in an attempt to stop, what they see, as aggressive behavior from a human or another animal.  However, it doesn’t mean that he won’t become defensive if the perceived aggression doesn’t stop.  If it is due to another animal in his space, remove that animal and let him chill.  It may save you from having to break up a fight.  Or save you from taking a bite from a frightened dog.

Lip licking in frustration or confusion

Lip licking is also common when a dog is frustrated, or confused.  Such as when you’re trying to train your dog to do something, and he doesn’t yet understand what you want him to do.

What to do:

End the training session.  But end it on a positive note.  Ask him to perform a command that he already knows, something simple, like sit.  Give him a treat, and end the training session.

When you’re ready to start working on the command that confused him, try to find a way to make it easier for him to understand.  Such as by breaking down the behavior you’re trying to teach into parts, to make it easier for your dog to understand.

Lip licking due to anxiety

Dogs will often lip lick due to anxiety also.  A new place, new person, new other animal.  Lots of things can cause anxiety.  Especially if you have an insecure dog.

Think of it like a human chewing their nails, or twisting a lock of hair around there finger.  And just like with humans, when the calming behavior is repeated too often, it becomes a compulsive habit.  (And as a former nail biter, I can attest to how hard this type of behavior is to change.  It took me years.)

What to do:

If your dog starts lip licking due to anxiety to a place, try to redirect his attention.  Ask him to perform a couple of simple commands that he knows well.  And reward him highly.  This helps to build his confidence in new situations.  But avoid comforting him.  Comforting is a reward, and only reinforces his anxiety.

If it has become a compulsive behavior, distraction is also the best way to break it.  Give him something else to do, such as as chew on a toy, or go for a walk.  If the habit doesn’t seem to bother him, don’t worry about it.

Lip licking to signal pain

If none of the above reasons for lip licking is what’s bothering your dog.  Then it could be that he’s hurting somewhere.  Lip licking can also signal that your dog is in pain.  Possibly dental diseases, or other mouth pain.  Or accompanied by drooling, even nausea.

What to do:

Watch your dog closely for other signs of illness.  If he’s not acting normally, it’s probably time for a trip to the vet.

If your dog will let you, check his teeth.  Bad teeth, or a broken tooth, may well be the culprit causing him pain.

Drooling and lip licking may be that your dog is nauseous.  Nausea makes them drool, and they lick their lips to get rid of the excessive saliva.  If your dog goes outside and eats grass, it almost definitely means he has an upset belly.

A dog that is acting normally, beyond the lip licking, look around his environment to see if there’s something that’s making him uneasy.  It could just be anxiety.  If you don’t see anything out of the ordinary, then a trip to the vet might rule out medical issues that you may not notice.

Do you have a lip licker?  Do you know the reason behind your dog’s lip licking?

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