Have you ever given much thought to doggy lip-licking? Dogs do lick their lips when they are anticipating food (or disposing of incriminating evidence) but there’s actually a lot more to a lip-lick than meets the eye. Behaviour experts believe they can give us real insight into the emotion of a dog but what *exactly* they mean, we’re not currently sure of.
Some people believe that lip-licks are an example of an appeasement gesture, sometimes called a calming signal. The idea here is that lip-licking is a way of pacifying a situation, or lowering the tension in some way. You may have noticed something like this when your dog meets an unknown dog in the park – depending on the characters involved, things could be a little uptight and stiff between the two of them, which is when you’re might see a lip-lick. It’s almost a way of saying ‘Woah, ok man, we’re good. We’re cool.’
Another notion is that lip-licks occur during motivational conflict. For example, have you ever asked your dog to sit and stay whilst you quickly do something and then notice them lick their nose or lips (a personal example: having just locked the front door to go to the park, realising I’ve forgotten the poo bags, then asking Leica to stay put whilst I dash in to get them)? In theory, the dog is torn between fulfilling your request (sitting and staying) and doing something else, often preferable (going to the park). In other words, he’s in conflict!
It has been suggested that dogs lick their lips when they are stressed or rather uncomfortable with something. Have you ever taken your dog to the vet and observed his behaviour whilst he was being examined? My dogs, although highly sociable with humans, almost always lick their lips during this time. The nice thing is, I think this can also be explained in terms of motivational conflict. The conflict arises when a dog, who would rather not be examined (who wants someone poking and prodding you all up in your personal space?), is aware that he has been requested to stay put and allow it to happen (or, if we want to avoid the sticky issue of whether dogs can be aware of expectations, being physically restrained but wanting to move away).
Personally, I like the conflict theory, as I think it’s a neat mechanism for explaining a lot of the very general beliefs people have about lip-licks, such as appeasement, stress, pain etc.
But then again, is it really that simple? I have an inkling that lip-licking may be even more subtle a communication tool than we think. I’d love to know whether it’s significant if a dog licks to the left or the right of his nose. It’s not as crazy an idea as you might think! The theory, called the Valence-Specific Hypothesis, predicts that positive emotions are associated with the left hemisphere of the brain, and negative emotions are associated with the right. In terms of the behaviour we see, it would suggest that a lip-lick to the right is ‘good’ and vice versa (don’t forget, what occurs on one side of the body is processed by the opposite side of the brain). Still think I’m crazy? It has been shown that dogs experiencing positive stimuli *tend* to wag their tail more to the right, and those less happy scenarios cause them to wag more to the left (also remember, wagging tail does not equal a happy dog, as anyone bitten by a wagging dog will know!) And there’s further evidence of the left ear warming up during positive scenarios, as a consequence of the electrical activity going on in the left hemisphere of the brain.
I find it fascinating. And the whole relevancy of this post is as a roundabout way of apologising for not posting regularly this week. Excitingly, I’ve been helping my friend Caroline from my MSc course with the data compilation from her thesis. She’s trying to decipher once and for all what’s in a lick, and I can’t wait to see her results. It’s taking a fair bit of time, though, so we may have to wait to find out. Hopefully we’re going to unravel this mystery very soon…
Many thanks to the talented Yulia Titovets of Four Little Paws photography for the photos.
Have a woofy weekend!