Lip Smacking Good! Or Is It?

Dogs are our closest companions. They lie next to us when we’re ill, make us laugh on a daily basis, and overall are just the best creatures on earth. But why, then, do some dogs bite? And why don’t most of us see it coming?

We’ve all heard it before. “Fluffy bit out of the blue!” or “Sally never showed any indication of snapping before this.” The thing is, dogs rarely bite out of the blue. And even the mildest of dogs can bite if pushed past threshold.

Dogs do not WANT to bite. Dogs like to avoid the risk of injury at all costs. So, before a bite happens, they will warn you. They might warn for months or even years before a bite ever occurs. Or, as a dog becomes more mature, their tolerance for certain situations might decrease over time.

Other than growling and snarling, what should you be looking for? One of the most obvious warning signs is lip licking. Yep, you read that right – dogs will lick their lips to indicate stress, discomfort, or as an appeasement gesture to calm other dogs or their humans down. Depending on the dog, the licking can be very obvious or very subtle. But it is also very important you always look at the context of said lip licking.

Obviously, if your dog has just eaten, finished drinking or has even been chewing on a toy or bone, they are likely just cleaning their lips. On the other hand, if your dog is chewing on a bone and you try to remove it from them, and their body stiffens and they begin licking their lips – they are letting you know they don’t feel comfortable. They are warning you.

There are two kinds of stress, as well. There is ‘distress’, which is the bad kind of stress and ‘eustress’, which is the good kind of stress. We’ve all seen the videos of dogs gleefully pouncing their owners who have been away in the army, which is a good example of eustress. Or if you are about to give your dog a tasty meal and they begin licking their lips rapidly – the lip licking is most likely due to eustress. (Well, sometimes it’s drool!)

Both types of stresses often come with other tell-tale language as well, which makes it easier to figure out the context of the dog’s behavior. Dogs exhibiting eustress will be loose and wiggly, appear almost soft and/or floppy, and their face will overall look relaxed. The lip licking will be exaggerated and their tongue might flop out of their mouth in a relaxed smile. Their tail may be wagging loosely and in a circular motion. For dogs with short or no tails, their entire back end may be swinging wildly back and forth!

When a dog is distressed, everything is very tight and still. Their whole body will be rigid, they might not be moving very much, they will lift or turn their head away from whatever is causing them distress. The whites of their eyes may be visible (also known as ‘whale eye’), the lip licking will be slow and deliberate, and their tail, if it is wagging, will be wagging very stiffly. Their movements will be slow and calculated, and there may be other signs that also indicate stress or appeasement – ears will be down and stiff, the brow will be furrowed, the lips will be pinched together, and they may even shake off or yawn, despite not being wet or sleepy.

What should you do if you notice your dog licking their lips in the context of distress? The short answer is: leave them alone. They are asking as nicely as they can for space. Long answer is: contact a local dog trainer who is skilled and experienced in working with dogs who exhibit fear and aggression, but who don’t use painful or scary tools or methods to achieve positive results. Look for a trainer with a good knowledge of thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization, and who makes your dog’s safety and comfort a priority. Walk away from any trainer who uses shock, prong, or choke collars, or who tells you that you need to be alpha or that your dog is trying to dominate you. These old school methods can actually make matters worse.

In conclusion, lip licking is just one of the many subtle signals that a dog is not comfortable and should not be ignored. Be sure to visit Susan Young at for assistance and more information!