A Little Sugar

A reader asks: We kiss our little dog all the time. She seems to understand it is something special. But is that really true?

While I spend much of my life trying to understand how dogs think and feel, I can never really know what any individual dog (or human) — or dogdom in general — thinks, feels, or understands. But I have certainly given this some thought, as have many dog people. Here’s my take.

The relationship with her humans is the most important thing in your dog’s life. Even dogs who live among doggy siblings treasure their bonds with their humans. So yes, any individual contact is special to her.

But is there something about a kiss that is special to a dog? We often interpret a dog’s licks as kisses from them to us. We might be wrong about that, or, as with many vocalizations that dogs use with their humans, a kiss or lick might be a dog’s attempt to mimic something that is a big part of how humans interact and communicate. Again, hard to be sure.

Dogs lick themselves or each other as a way to soothe or relieve tension or anxiety. They might lick us to ask us to stop doing something (ever tried to examine a dog’s hurt paw only to have him lick your hand incessantly the entire time?). Mother dogs lick their pups to clean them and, in very young puppies, to stimulate toileting. Puppies might nuzzle and lick their mom’s muzzle to ask for food. But all of these types of licking look and feel very different from the nuzzling, gentle licks that seem to indicate affection.

Cali cuddleSo how do dogs understand our kisses and hugs? Many dogs dislike hugs or even see them as threatening. Most do learn to tolerate them, but it’s never a good idea to hug or kiss a dog you do not know well.

Your own dog has probably learned that kissing, hugging, and other types of contact that might not come naturally to dogs are important parts of your relationship with her. She is much more likely to accept it from you than from a stranger, even if it’s not her favorite thing. You can watch your dog’s reaction to see whether she leans away, puts her ears back, or tenses up when you touch or pet her in certain ways; if so, try something else. If she likes what you are doing — leans in, paws you to get you to continue if you stop — you can do more of it (bring on the belly rubs!). If kissing happens when you are snuggling with your dog and she’s staying put or even snuggling closer (asking for more?) I’d guess that she is enjoying the contact and closeness — and that she does know it is one of the ways you show her that you love her.