Dog Body Language: Lip Licking

Dog licking lips
KMGS Photography/Getty Images

If you see a dog licking his lips, you might assume he is simply eating or drooling over something. But what if there is no food around? What does lip licking mean then?

Lip licking is a type of dog communication. A dog who licks his lips is using body language to let you know how he's feeling.

What Is Lip Licking in Dogs?

Lip licking is just what it sounds like, a dog licking his lips. If you notice a dog is licking his lips when there's no food involved, he's probably trying to send a message.


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What It Means When Dogs Lick Their Lips

Dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas coined the phrase "calming signals" to refer to lip licking and similar dog behaviors. Lip licking is also often referred to as an appeasement gesture. What it all boils down to is that dogs who are licking their lips feel stressed or uncomfortable about something going on around them that they perceive as a threat.

Dogs lick their lips to appease (soothe) a person or animal they perceive as a threat in order to ward off aggression. An example of this can be seen in dogs who are scolded when their owners return home after being gone all day only to find the dog has had an accident in the house. A dog might not connect the scolding to relieving himself indoors. Instead, he sees his owner as a threat. The owner may be yelling and looming over him. So, the dog offers an appeasement gesture by licking his lips and averting his gaze. This is the dog's way of saying that he isn't a threat to the person or animal behaving in an aggressive manner.

Sometimes dogs exhibit appeasement gestures like lip licking and yawning when they are frustrated or confused. Many owners notice this during training sessions when their dogs are having trouble understanding what is being taught. 

Another important possible reason for excessive lip licking in dogs is a health-related issue, such as nausea, dental disease, or mouth pain. Look for other signs of illness and keep a close eye on your dog.

illustration of reasons why dogs lick their lips
Illustration: Vin Ganapathy. © The Spruce, 2018 

What to Do If Your Dog is Licking His Lips

While lip licking is usually considered a submissive gesture meant to prevent aggression from escalating, it is still often a sign that a dog is stressed and uncomfortable with a situation. This gesture of appeasement may be a dog's first attempt to stop the aggressive behavior (i.e. to stop his owner from yelling at him). However, this does not mean that the dog won't become defensive if the aggressive behavior continues. So if you see a dog licking his lips, back off. This will allow him some space to get more comfortable. At the same time, it can save you from a potential bite from a dog who feels the need to defend himself.

If your dog is lip-licking at the vet or another place that makes him nervous, try to redirect him in a positive manner. You can ask him to do a trick and then reward him for complying. Avoid comforting your dog when he is uneasy as this only reinforces his fear or anxiety.

If your dog is lip-licking during a training session, it's probably best to find a way to quickly end on a positive note (ask your dog to do something he knows and wrap up the session). Next time, break down the action or behavior into smaller segments so it's easier for your dog to learn. This is sometimes called shaping behaviors.

If you often find your dog exhibiting lip-licking behavior when there is no clear threat and no food around, you may want to investigate further. Perhaps there is something in your dog's environment that is making him uneasy. Remember that there may even be a health problem, such as nausea or oral discomfort. When in doubt, take your dog to the vet for a check-up.