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Why does Cappy lick his owner’s hand?

He could be exerting control or extracting information

[From Tufts August 2011 Issue]

Last year I purchased a 3-month-old mahogany colored poodle with green eyes — a beautiful dog. I have had mostly springer spaniels for many years, and this guy has a habit that stumps me. Cappy will take my wrist or hand gently in his mouth and rub his tongue across my skin. I have asked many experts what he is doing, but none can come up with an answer except, ‘’He owns you.’’ Is there some reason he does this?
Irene Byington
Shelter Island, N.Y.

I’m not 100 percent sure why Cappy is doing this behavior, but I can think of several possibilities. He may be collecting information about you in the form of tasting or smelling you. Dogs’ taste buds are located at the tip of their tongues, and dogs have the ability to taste bitter, sweet, sour and salty flavors. The taste of our bare, unadulterated skin may fall into the last category.

Cappy may also be smelling you. Dogs can use their tongues to collect scent molecules and deliver them to their vomeronasal organ located on the roof of their mouths. This organ is specifically geared to detecting scents with social significance, such as the pheromones we excrete in sweat. Our wrists tend not to be the sweatiest areas on our bodies, but our hands produce sweat. I wonder if a pheromone-containing perfume or a bath product that you may use could play a role in eliciting this behavior from Cappy.

We should consider why he reaches for your hand or wrist and not any other part of your body. Convenience may be the simplest explanation -- your hand or wrist area may be within easy reach for him. It may also be the only exposed part of your body that he can easily access.

I can understand why people may explain this behavior in terms of ownership. Grabbing a person’s hand is a behavior some dogs use to try and control their owners’ next move. An owner’s response to the hand grabbing can affect whether a dog chooses to repeat the behavior — i.e., if a dog is rewarded for the hand grabbing, it will likely happen again. If something desirable for Cappy happens after he grabs your hand, he will be more likely to grab your hand in the future!
Nicole Cottam, MS
ACAAB, Cummings School

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