Dear Doctor: October 2017
Q: Our small cockapoo Bailey always sleeps on the bed with us. And he always ends up on my pillow, curled around my head with breaths from his little nose going right into my ear. Curiously, in the middle of the night, I almost always wake to find him furiously licking my face, especially my eye sockets and scalp. Once he did it so long and hard that he scratched my cornea. If I have a nick from shaving, he will literally lick it until the scab is gone. These episodes can last as long as 30 minutes. Is he grooming me as his master and trying to please me? Whatever the reason, it’s so cute that I never cut him off. It’s good to be loved. He’s a great dog and tends to my every emotional need. I should note that he doesn’t ever do this to my wife. What’s going on here?
Dear Mr. Altman,
A: There are different schools of thought on licking. Some animal behaviorists believe it’s not really a kiss from a dog but a deferential, attention-seeking behavior that’s left over from a pup licking his mother’s lips to get her to regurgitate food. We once had a Rottweiler puppy who was brought to the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic to treat some behavior issues, and he put his two front paws on the treating veterinarian’s desk and slobbered him up and down with his sandpapery tongue. The dog may have been nervous about being in a new place and wanted to show that he meant no harm. (A deferential dog will lick the chin of a more dominant one.)
Others say licking is in fact a sign of affection, which is interesting because dogs don’t lick each other to express love. So how would a dog learn to lick to express his affection for a person in his life?
Most likely, because he gets good feedback for it, says the head of our Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. That is, it’s a learned behavior, one taught to him by you. If Bailey starting out licking you at one point or another and you reacted in a delighted way, perhaps by speaking lovingly to him or giggling or by petting him soothingly in turn (we assume you didn’t lick back!), he became conditioned to lick you when he felt like having some nice “we” time. What better time than in the middle of the night, when he might wake up feeling a little lonely and wanting attention? After all, you say the behavior is so cute that you never cut him off. Perhaps he tends to zero in on your eye sockets and scalp (and shaving nicks) because they emit secretions whose odors or textures he finds particularly interesting.
As for your dog’s not licking your wife, if she doesn’t like your pet’s wet tongue in her eyes or elsewhere on her body, it could explain why he doesn’t lick her for affection. She may have conditioned him not to with an entirely different response.