Do dogs really give kisses? When we look at animal behavior, it’s important to avoid falling into the anthropomorphism trap. Anthropomorphism, that is, the habit of attributing to animals human traits, often gets in the way and ultimately prevents us from clearly interpreting animal behavior correctly. Truth is, in the dog world, we don’t see dogs kiss each other in the real sense of the word. More likely, they lick each other’s muzzles or the corners of the mouth, but what does this mean? Let’s take a closer look at this behavior.
Interpreting “Kisses” Among Dogs
When we observe dog behavior, we can really just make assumptions or educated guesses as to why they behave in certain ways. If we look at dogs interacting, we may notice that they face lick in certain circumstances. The earliest we see this behavior in canines is in early puppy hood. Mother dog will lick her newborn puppies to clean them up and stimulate them to breathe. She will also lick the puppies’ rears to stimulate them to eliminate.
When the puppies are then beginning to be weaned, they will lick the corners of their mother’s mouth to encourage her to regurgitate for them. This behavior is reminiscent of the old days when the pups where in the wild and mother dog couldn’t carry a dead carcass to the den. Instead, she would eat and then regurgitate for her pups in order to feed them. As the puppies grow, the licking behavior continues as a way for the puppies to greet older dogs and communicate submission. The face and lip licking, therefore remains part of the dog’s behavior repertoire. However, not all dogs appreciate having other dogs come close to their face and getting licked by them.
Interpreting “Kisses” Directed to People
Dogs will also lick people, and often people refer to these facial licks as kisses, but are they really kisses? A good place to start is by looking at the context. If your puppy or dog greets you by jumping and enthusiastically licking your face when you come home from work, after being away a good part of the day, most likely you’re looking at happy, greeting behavior. A puppy or dog though licking the face of your toddler who just finished eating Mac’ n Cheese most likely is not kissing, but simply cleaning up those tasty remnants of food. Some dogs will also lick people’s faces as a way to show appeasement, anxiety or deference. And last but not least, you have dogs “kissing” because the behavior has a history of reinforcement, explains Dr. Nicholas Dodman. Indeed, if every time your dog “kisses” you, he receives reinforcement, that is, positive feedback under the form of verbal praise, pats and attention, most likely, this behavior will continue and repeat.
Putting a Stop to Face Licking
While many dog owners find dog “kisses” to be endearing, there are cases where people may not be too fond of this behavior. So what if your dog is too focused in licking your face and you want to put a halt to this behavior? If so, you may want to train a “no lick” command and train your dog to replace the licking with some other behavior that gets attention. If you want a more polite greeting, how about asking him to shake instead of licking faces? So if your dog comes near you and you notice he’s about to lick your face, you can try interrupting the behavior by saying “no lick,” and, as you move your face away, ask him to give you his paw instead. Make sure you lavishly reward the paw giving behavior and stop reinforcing facial licking. Remember the golden rule: behaviors that are reinforced, repeat, and behaviors that aren’t reinforced, extinguish.
And What About People Kissing Dogs?
As a human, you may feel compelled to kiss your dog as a way for showing affection, but does your dog really like this? Let’s keep in mind that some dogs may be a tad bit intimidated by this behavior and there are countless reports of dogs biting when owners hug or kiss their dogs. It’s always best to avoid getting close and personal with dogs we do not know well, and children should be taught to never approach dogs this way. If you have been kissing your dog for years, and your dog really appreciates it, there’s nothing wrong about that, but always pay close attention to your dog’s body language. Yawning, lip licking, head turning and the more obvious teeth showing and growling are ways your dog is telling you he’s not much comfortable with the interaction. Your best bet? Best to learn more about your dog’s calming signals, respect his thoughts on “kissing” and play it safe.