Lip Licks!

A classic lip lick from Zani

Just a quick body language observation item today. I love watching slow-motion footage of my dogs since so much is happening that I normally don’t see.

I had suspected for a while that Summer had at least two distinct “lip licks.” Lip licks, lip flicks, or nose licks are believed to be stress signals for most dogs. I certainly think they are for Summer and Zani. The slightest hint of untoward events and it is Lip Lick City at my house. It is embarrassingly easy to get one on film. All I have to do is walk straight toward either of them with stiff body language and they’ll usually do it. Both of them are incredibly pressure-sensitive. (I try to mind my body language on their behalf,  but I’m a klutzy human so of course I bother them a couple of times a day by accident.)

Anyway, here is a short movie comparing what I believe to be stress lip licks from both Summer and Zani, contrasted with what I believe is a happy relaxed lip lick from Summer. Both of these lip licks can be seen in the video in Does Your Dog REALLY Want to Be Petted? One lip lick means no, another yes.

So does anybody else’s dog have a “happy lip lick” like Summer?

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

19 thoughts on “Lip Licks!

  1. Both my dogs do the exact same as your Summer, especially Taffy. I’m so glad that you did this post as I think the lip licking thing can be confusing for some. When mine are being patted and are relaxed they do the one where the tongue just barley comes out of the mouth.

  2. I’ll have to take a closer look when I get home tonight. If they are it’s not really noticeable. I have wondered about this kind of behaviour and I have really wondered what they could possibly be stressed about because it only happens when they are relaxed, interacting with me and something positive is happening. Just the tip of the tongue shows and sometimes they keep it out for a while if I’m scratching a good spot and they lean into it.

  3. Thank you! you gave me much to think about! I feel very uncomfortable when I see it in my training videos. Much thought to do. 🙂

  4. Do your dogs champ? I was watching my girls tonight for the swallowing while lip licking and yes they do while champing (smacking their lips and licking) which is what they do when they want something. Then there is the “wolf greeting behaviour” that they do which also has little quick licks to the face. Oh so much to decipher!

  5. Molly definitely does the small lip lick when she is exceptionally contented. She might be being petted or scratched, or perhaps brushed in a way that she likes. Her entire face looks relaxed, particularly her eyes. I haven’t noticed that she is swallowing while doing this. If I am understanding Marjorie’s definition of “champing”, Molly does this as well under the same relaxed, contented circumstances.

  6. Tongue rolling in humans is genetically influenced (not a single gene trait). I wonder if it’s the same in dogs. sign me curious.

  7. My dog does this little lip lick whenever he’s contented and happy and being touched or rubbed in a way he likes. I was sure it wasn’t stress lip licking, but I’d never seen it discussed. Thanks for insight.

  8. Mine does too when she seems content and relaxed, and she also squints her eyes and looks at me at the same time often. She does not seem to swallow. Thanks for interesting discussion!mm

  9. This is a great discussion. My dog’s baseline behavior includes nonstop lip licks in all situations, so I have had to really nitpick the minute details of each type of lick in every scenario. The way he does those mini-licks when he is getting pet, or having an intense snuggle and definitely loving it (just like Summer but he does it a gazillion times), and at his most relaxed to me almost resembles suckling behavior.

    He also exhibits the nose-to-side licks at normal times of excitement, anxiety, or anticipation as you described. But one lick that I have not really been able to pin down is a straight in-and-out air lick, almost like a lizard. I see this one in so many contexts that I usually just exclude it and pay attention to the rest of his body language, because he is a very expressive dog. But I was wondering if you have come to any conclusions of your own about that particular lick.

    Another interesting signal is the “straight-leg pushaway.” My dog does this when I pet or scratch him in a really great place, almost as if it feels so good he needs to brace himself, and also as a way to push himself harder into the scratch. But he also does this sometimes when I go to kiss him and he is not feeling it.

    I suppose the takeaway has been that while some body language signals have universal meanings (thank goodness), a lot of the more subtle signals are contextual. So if my dog is demonstrating a lick that I have previously always considered a happy lick, but while the vet is examining him for pain, then obviously in that context he is communicating something different. I am with you though – it is one of the most pleasurable parts of pet ownership to really get to know their body language so you can truly communicate with each other.

    1. Maybe it’s because you mentioned lizards, but I wonder if dogs ever flick their tongues out straight to “taste” a smell? I’m just completely speculating; I have no idea. I love that you have studied your dog’s different licks and other behaviors, and that you are careful to look at the whole picture when looking at body language. I agree, it’s an interesting and fun task, not onerous. Thanks so much for the nice comment.

  10. My dog does the same lick that your Zani does when we’re training – is this a bad thing? Does it mean that I’m going to fast for him? He’s a very focused dog and really strives to work out what I’m asking and to do it. I always though he he loves our training sessions but if the lip licking is bad, then maybe I need to change my approach…
    He also yawns sometimes in a way which I think is a happy yawn – a really big, rounded yawn with an ‘oww!’ sound. Yawning is another behaviour which I read about as being either a sign of stress or a sign of needing to sleep.

    1. Hi Nina,

      I can’t tell you about your own dog, but I will say that most dogs do lip licks a lot more than you would think, once you start to notice. I don’t worry too much about lip licks by themselves, or rather, for us they don’t mean the training session is too much or needs to stop. For instance, with Summer in the video, she licked her lips twice because she heard a noise that bothered her. We went on with the session and she was fine. Sometimes my dogs lip lick in training when they are concentrating and trying to figure out what I want. That’s OK with me too if it’s just now and then and not constant.

      I think the biggest thing to be careful about is when you start to see clusters of these signals. Then it might be time to change something, at least right then. Some others are turning the head away, suddenly being very interested in a patch of ground, raising a paw, and yawning as you mentioned.

      If he loves training, that’s a pretty good positive indicator right there! Good luck with your dog and keep watching.

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