Decoding Body Language: When Dogs Lick Their Lips

dog licking lips
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As dog owners, we often find ourselves wishing our dogs could talk. Oh, all the things they could tell us! But the reality is, they do talk to us. They ‘speak’ through their body language – their tails, ears, eyes, and even lips. You may have seen your dog lick their lips and brushed it off. But as you’ll learn in this article, lip licking is more than an endearing canine quirk, it’s a vital part of dog body language.

What Do We Mean By Lip Licking?

First, let’s be clear on what we mean by ‘lip licking.’ It’s not about those adorably messy moments when they’ve just finished a tasty meal and are busy cleaning up the leftovers. No, the lip licking we’re talking about is more subtle. It’s quick, often barely noticeable, and happens even when there’s no delicious dinner in sight.

Typically, a dog will swiftly dart its tongue out, lick its nose or lips, and then immediately retract the tongue back into its mouth. It’s such a rapid movement that you could easily miss it if you’re not paying close attention. This specific type of lip licking is a way for dogs to communicate their emotions and mental state to other dogs, animals, and humans.

What Lip Licking Indicates

We’ve established that lip licking is a form of communication for our dogs. But what exactly are they trying to tell us? Well, it depends on the context. Like any language, dog body language also has its nuances and complexities.

In many cases, when a dog licks its lips, it’s a sign of discomfort or stress. It’s similar to how we humans might bite our nails or fidget when we’re nervous. For instance, if your dog is in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by strangers, or being scolded, you might notice them start to lick their lips. Also very common is lip licking as a sign of submission or appeasement. If your dog feels threatened or intimidated by another dog, they might lick their lips as a way to show that they are not a threat and want to avoid conflict. Let’s dig deeper into these two possibilities, plus a few other less common reasons why your dog may be lip licking. 

An Appeasement Gesture

Have you ever noticed your dog licking their lips when you’re scolding them for chewing on your favorite pair of shoes? Or maybe when they’re in the presence of an unfamiliar dog? This could be their attempt to diffuse the situation and keep the peace. Lip licking, in this context, is an appeasement gesture.

In the wild, canines use appeasement gestures to maintain social harmony and avoid conflict. It’s a way of saying, “I mean no harm.” Your domesticated dog, in spite of living a comfortable life far removed from the wild, still retains these instincts. So the next time you see your dog licking their lips, they might just be trying to calm the waters.

However, it’s crucial to read the situation accurately. If your dog is giving off other signs of fear or submission such as lowered ears, a tucked tail, or avoidance of eye contact, it might be an indication that they’re feeling threatened or uncomfortable. It’s essential to address these feelings appropriately and make your dog feel safe and secure.

An Expression of Stress or Discomfort

Just like humans, dogs can experience stress and discomfort. And just like humans, they have their ways of expressing it. Lip licking is one such stress signal. If your dog is licking their lips when there’s no food around, and they’re not looking to appease anyone, they might be feeling stressed or uncomfortable.

Stress can come from a variety of sources. Maybe there’s a thunderstorm outside, or perhaps they’re in an unfamiliar environment. Your dog might also feel stressed if their routine is disrupted, or if they’re left alone for extended periods. In such cases, lip licking is a way for them to self-soothe.

Recognizing these signs of stress is crucial for maintaining your dog’s mental health. By providing a safe and stable environment, sticking to a routine, and ensuring they’re not left alone for too long, you can help alleviate their stress and make them feel more comfortable.

A Sign of Confusion or Frustration

Another reason why your dog might be licking their lips is because they’re feeling confused or frustrated. Maybe you’ve introduced a new command that they can’t quite grasp, or perhaps they’re trying to figure out how to get that treat from under the couch. In such situations, lip licking can be a sign of cognitive effort.

It’s similar to how some people might bite their nails or tap their foot when they’re trying to solve a difficult problem. Your dog, unable to voice their confusion or frustration, might resort to lip licking as a way to cope with the situation. It’s their way of saying, “I’m trying to figure this out.”

As a pet owner, it’s your job to recognize this and provide guidance. If they’re struggling with a new command, it might be time to break it down into simpler steps. If they’re frustrated with a toy or treat they can’t reach, lend a helping hand. Remember, patience is key when dealing with a confused or frustrated dog.

An Indication of a Health Issue 

Beyond psychological reasons, persistent lip licking can also be a sign of dental disease, mouth pain, or other health issues. If your dog is excessively licking their lips and displaying other signs of discomfort such as loss of appetite, changes in behavior, or difficulty chewing, it might be time to consult a vet.

Dental diseases in dogs are more common than you might think. Plaque and tartar build-up can lead to gum disease, which can be quite painful for your furry friend. Other health issues like oral tumors, gastrointestinal problems, or neurological conditions can also cause excessive lip licking.

It’s essential to keep an eye on your dog’s health and attend regular vet check-ups. Early detection and treatment can make all the difference when it comes to your dog’s health and well-being.


Lip licking in dogs is a complex and fascinating aspect of their body language. It offers us a window into their emotional world and helps us understand them better. The next time your dog is licking their lips, take the time to examine what’s going on. Are they trying to keep the peace? Are they stressed or uncomfortable? Or is it a sign of a health issue? If your dog is licking their lips, it’s your job as a responsible and loving pet owner to listen and respond with empathy and understanding.

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