Kisses (Not the Chocolate Kind)

I’ve never been one to think that dogs who give “kisses” are overly adorable or charming.

I mean, I suppose if you’ve got it solely attached to a verbal signal, fine, and I do know lots of people find it cute and/or hilarious, but I’m just not one of them.

Maybe it’s because my dog is… errr… I mean, my dogs are (still getting used to that!) are Newfoundlands.  Which means Moses can be one panting, drooly mess, and I’ve never had a hint of desire to teach him to “give kisses”.

Can you blame me?

But you may remember that, in my brief recap of Alma’s first week home, I mentioned she had a few little things we needed to work on with her.

One of the unique little personality traits of Alma’s that we noticed right away is that she’ll lick you.

A lot.

To her credit, Alma’s not nearly as drooly as Moses – not even close – but it’s excessive and I’m not a fan.  And I can only imagine what guests will think if they come over and our adorable little Newf won’t stop assaulting them with her face – regardless of how friendly she may be.

Assaulting? Who? Alma? (Also - notice the kitten photo-bomb to the right)

Sure, to some an occasional “puppy kiss” now and then is endearing.  But when I say Alma’s licking is excessive, it is.  It’s not just when you get home from work – it’s every time she comes to see you.  (In the course of proof-reading this post before hitting ‘Publish’ – about 15 minutes – she’s racked up four counts of Attempted Licking in the First Degree.) And she’ll go for your hands, your pants, your foot, your face, your elbow… whatever she can reach.  It sure makes her one little weirdo.

Interestingly enough, she doesn’t really lick Moses at all.  But it would be no surprise to learn her dog manners are better honed than her people ones.

Now, we’ve got our plan to curb the excessive licking all laid out.

Are you ready for it?

It’s very high-tech and complicated.

We’re going to… ignore it.

And by ignore, I mean ignore.  Alma’s licking will get no reaction – not a smile, not a word.  Not even eye contact.  In fact, we may even turn away from her, to associate it with a negative consequence.

Then, the times when she approaches us calmly and politely and doesn’t try to lick us, she will be met with praise and affection and all good things.

I’ve already noticed the amount of times she approaches without licking me is increasing (albeit slowly), so we’ll just keep up the ignoring and be as consistent in our strategy as possible.  Admittedly, the ignore technique can prove to be challenging, especially when the initial knee-jerk reaction can be to laugh, say “eww”, or say “no!”  But I’ll work on it.

The Licker

But encountering this behaviour has made me very curious about its causes. So I did some reading.

Licking is a natural behaviour for dogs.  Mothers lick their newborn pups to stimulate them.  Young puppies lick their mothers to prompt her to regurgitate food for them (not just for birds – who knew?!).

But part of me is pretty sure (hoping?) Alma’s not trying to get me to throw up some dinner.

A couple of websites say dogs lick people because they like the salty taste of skin.  I’m also going to throw this theory out in our case because Alma will also lick your pants or shirt sleeves.  Or the laptop.  I’m also ruling out that it’s part of grooming behaviour.

Ever-trusty Wikipedia’s brief page on dog behaviour suggests licking can also be a friendly greeting or a bonding technique, and another random website that Google turned up suggests it can be a gesture of appeasement, goodwill, deference, or an attempt to get attention from people.

Both “dog gurus” Victoria Stilwell and Cesar Millan address this question on their websites.

Stilwell, answering a question about a situation that sounds very similar to our own, says the licking provides comfort and pleasure to the dog, and can relieve stress.  And she similarly recommends ignoring it.

Millan, answering a question that seems a little more excessive than ours (the dog licks furniture too), classifies it as a sign of anxiety (once medical reasons are ruled out – which some other online sources also discuss, but I will also rule out in our case), under-exercise/stimulation, as well as a behaviour that can increase when it receives a positive reaction from the humans.  He also hints at ignoring the behaviour, or redirecting with another activity.

While not really finding any firm answers behind the “why”, I thought of checking into licking as a calming signal, since I have noticed that the times Alma does approach without licking us, she sometimes licks her own lips and nose.  But my hunch hasn’t turned out to be validating, since licking others isn’t included in any of the lists of calming signals out there.  Still, I’m tempted to chalk it up to a sort of social awkwardness around people.

Moses, mid-calming signal

And, interesting fact: while looking up this subject, I read somewhere that black dogs use licking as a calming signal more often than lighter-coloured dogs because their facial expressions are often harder to read.  It doesn’t seem to be the case for Moses (he often yawns, as you know – which is also a clear signal for a dark coloured dog), but definitely is for Alma.

Moses & Alma

Basically, though, I’m still not exactly sure why she does it (let me know if you have any thoughts/theories/suggestions), but it’s one of Alma’s quirks that she likely once learned got her a positive reaction from people.

So we’ll see what we can do about decreasing her weirdo-factor by not encouraging the licking.