There are a great many ways in which dogs demonstrate submissive behaviour to either people or to other dogs, and licking as a form of appeasement and affection is just one of them. Similarly, licking is not automatically a submissive gesture, and dogs lick for a whole host of other reasons too, including liking the taste of your skin, to pick up a morsel of food, or to show you that they love you!
However, if your dog does lick as a sign of submission, this behaviour can be very marked, and potentially even turn into a compulsion for your dog. It is important to work out the reason behind your dog licking you to excess, and if necessary, curb the behaviour to prevent the compulsion, limit the spread of germs and make your dog feel more secure. Read on to learn more about submissive licking.
Firstly, it is important to be able to tell submissive licking from licking for other reasons, in order to handle it accordingly. If your dog creeps over to you and licks you quietly to let you know that they are there, they are likely trying to get your attention in the most polite and non-threatening way possible, one sign of submission.
Similarly, if you tell your dog off or if your dog suspects that you are displeased with them, of their first approach to trying to rectify matters is to lick you, this too is almost certainly a submissive gesture.
As mentioned earlier on, submission is not the only root cause of licking, and there are a great many other potential explanations for it too!
Many dogs enjoy the salty taste of our skin and will enjoy licking it off, and if you have dropped a scrap of food down your front, the licking that comes with this is easily explained! If your dog spends a great deal of time licking themselves rather than you or other people, this may again be a compulsive behaviour due to boredom, or might indicate a skin irritation or allergy, so it is important in this situation to get your dog checked out by your vet.
As descendents of wild wolves, dogs retain a lot in common with their ancient ancestors, and within their domestic pack of them and your human family, will replicate a lot of the same behaviours where the pack hierarchy is concerned. Within your home, your dog is likely to (or should) see yourself and the other adults as above them within the pack structure, with one alpha at the top.
Within the pack, the other members, such as your dog, are then naturally submissive to the alpha, and the other dogs that fall above them in the ranking. Submissive dogs will often then lick the higher pack members to indicate their submission and that they are not a threat, or to attempt to garner a reward, such as food or attention.
If your dog is apt to lick your face, this is one of the strongest signs of trust and affection that your dog can convey to you, and is almost universally a submissive gesture as well. It is your dog’s way of telling you that they trust you, respect you, and see you as the boss of them. Dogs may also lick the faces of other dogs in the same way, to indicate that they are not a threat and encourage the other dog to treat them kindly.
However, it is important to curb face-licking of people, as the mouths of dogs are rather dirty places, and can easily transmit harmful bacteria and germs to you. Discourage your dog from licking your face but do not chastise them for this, as chastisement of an already submissive behaviour will tend to amplify it.
If your dog is submissive to you and apt to lick you a lot to let you know this, licking is unlikely to be the only way that your dog lets you know that they think you are the boss.
Keep an eye out for a combination of other submissive behaviours used by your dog alongside of licking, such as exposing their stomach and throat to you in greeting. While this might seem like an obvious invitation to rub your dog’s tummy and many dogs very much enjoy this, exposing their vulnerable underside to you is again a submissive gesture, and lets you know that your dog yields dominance to you.
A dog that keeps their body profile low to the ground and slinks around, or that keeps their ears low and their tail tucked in is also indicating submission or uncertainty as well. In extreme cases, some dogs and particularly younger puppies will pee submissively, which is generally an involuntary response, and not something that they can consciously control. While this can be messy and annoying, chastising your dog for submissive urination is likely to only make the problem worse.