“To lick or not to lick.... that is the question.” That is the puzzle... the confounding. The near imponderable. As an act of a dog, licking is loaded with meaning and symbolism (more on this below). Even as a word, however, there’s a lot to “licking”. To illustrate, just look up the word. In Dictionary.com “licking” is defined as follows:
lick·ing noun: a. a beating or thrashing.
b. a reversal or disappointment; defeat or setback.
1350–1400; Middle English; see lick, -ing
Related Words for : licking: defeat, beating, drubbing, lacing, thrashing
lick verb: 1. to pass the tongue over the surface of, as to moisten, taste, oreat
2.to make, or cause to become, by stroking with the tongue
3.(of waves, flames, etc.) to pass or play lightly over
4. a.to hit or beat, especially as a punishment; thrash; whip.
b.to overcome or defeat, as in a fight, game, or contest.
c.to outdo or surpass.
To “beat” or “thrash” equally with “passing the tongue over”? Huh? What the? From what dusty cavern in Middle English did these disparate meanings for the same word emerge?
Even when you confine the definition to the single meaning of passing the tongue over, the significance of the act is still widely diverse. Renowned U.B.C. Professor of Psychology Stanley Coren, in an interesting e-article, laid bare the licking landscape, noting that many mammals lick wounds as an instinctive response to injury. This has given rise to a common folk belief that animal saliva (known in dog classes less eloquently as “goober”), has healing properties.
In a study of the ancient relationship between humans and dogs, Catherine Johns commented that “...dogs have a strong and very ancient symbolic connection with healing.” She observed that the Physician Deity Ascelpius held a staff with a snake curled on it and was accompanied by a dog.
So, why the heck do dogs lick us? Research indicates there are, in fact, many reasons which range from:
- The dog, as a member of a pack, is demonstrating a social behaviour that communicates deference to more dominant pack members (namely us!)
- Having been taught not to put teeth on skin (that’s a no-no), the dog learns to lick as a way of keeping its mouth busy
- A puppy instinctively licks its mother’s mouth to cue Mom to ... um, regurgitate a meal conveniently carried back to the den in her stomach
- Your dog simply may like the taste of our soap or moisturizer, OR
- The Big One for a therapy dog: it’s the dog’s way of showing you affection and enjoyment in being with you. Aha!
“Got any Cheerios?” It was wonderful to find the Empress of Cheerios having such a good evening. Our past few visits had to be with her lying flat in bed and speech slowing down. On that evening, however, her eyes were twinkling with a little of their old mischief. I suspect the reasons for her improved wellness had a great deal to do with her granddaughters occupying the chairs next to her bed. Misty clambered up to lie her front half alongside the Empress, which made snacking on her dog treats so much easier. Over the contented crunching of blueberry-pumpkin goodies, the girls giggled.
“You know your Grandma talks about you all the time.”
To the Empress I said, “It’s great to see you looking so happy. I think about you so often throughout the week when we’re not here.”
She looked immensely pleased but changed the subject abruptly. “Misty’s breath is... “
Oh Dear! “ I was holding my breath.
“One hundred per cent.”
“Is that one hundred per cent good? Or one hundred per cent bad?”
“Good! Oh, it’s good!”
Whew! “Well, you know I brush her teeth because I don’t want her breathing yucky dog breath on all you folks... after all, you’re just lying there all defenceless and everything...”
More giggles from the chairs and the Empress. Misty apparently was filled. She extracted herself from the bed and we moved on.
“Is this a promo?”
Well, that’s one question I never expected... we walked in to see a man who was new to the floor. “Uh, no, we’re your pet therapy team...”
He looked puzzled.
“Misty is a certified therapy dog. Once a week we come to this floor so she can visit with people who want to see her.”
“Oh.” He thought a moment. “Oh! Okay, then, come on up here.” The man was patting his chest.
I grabbed Misty’s front paws before they could land on his bony chest. “She’ll just cuddle up beside you. Here.” With Misty’s paws safely tucked in beside him, I straightened up.
“Why not here?” He patted his chest again and I caught Misty’s paw before she was able to plunk it down on him. She was so willing to do what he asked.
“Because,” I said, not letting go of that paw, “she weighs too much to lie across you and besides, the pads on her feet are too rough to be near your skin.”
“Oh. Okay.” He sounded deflated and I was struck with the immediacy of his desire to share the warmth and weight of Misty’s physicality. The contrast of crisp hospital linen with a furry, mammalian attendant could not have been more apparent. An isolated and solitary, scrubbed cocoon. A breathing, shared moment with two beating hearts. No more conversation... just a love-filled texture.
After a few minutes Misty straightened up out of the man’s embrace. Her job was finished here for now.
“Oh, you have to go to see others, I guess. Well you come back.” His voice was soft.
“We’ll see you next week.”
“Hey! There’s Misty! Come in here!” The Party Guy’s wife waved us in from the hall. He’d been moved... across from the nurses’ station. The Party was winding down. As we walked into the room, PG was in his bed asleep but the head of the bed was elevated. His wife, son, and I assume his mother, all sat in chairs around the bed. All were pale and looked exhausted.
Wife shook PG. “Hey... he’s awake! Will you look at that! Sure, you wake up for Misty but not for us!” She winked slowly at me. Slowly. Everything was sluggish as though caught under a July sun: with torpor, well past fatigue. “Let’s get your head up more.” She pressed the button on the bed that raised his head. Misty nuzzled into Wife’s hands. “Oh, so tonight I rate, eh?”
PG managed a smile. Misty pushed her way past Wife and started licking PG’s arm. Up and up. Up to his face. She licked his face and PG, still mute, smiled broadly and managed to stroke his loving caregiver.
“What a beautiful dog.” Mum spoke up. She was smiling. So were Son and Wife.
“Well, you don’t need to wash your face, now do you?” Wife smiled at him. The gentle razzing unceasing. “Hey, when was the last time you brushed your teeth?”
I chimed in. “Oh, we don’t do teeth.”
Laughter flowed out into the hall from this private room near the nurses’ station. I didn’t know how to leave them. I said what I always say when Misty and I leave a room: “See you next week.”
Catherine Johns’ eloquent words: “Dogs straddle the worlds of humankind and of wild nature like no other species, and this is probably why they have been widely regarded as inhabitants, not only of both the human and animal worlds, but also of the different places of existence of life and death, this world and the Underworld.”
 “ Can Dogs Help Humans Heal? Science looks at whether dog saliva has healing properties” June 7, 2011: Psychology Today. Dr. Coren discussed: the fact that there is a mechanical advantage in a dog’s tongue running over a wound in that debris in the wound is loosened and removed; the research into the antibiotic and other useful substances present in dog saliva; the release of nitrite that breaks down into a chemical compound effective in protecting cuts from bacterial infections; and a protein called “nerve growth factor” linked to healing wounds twice as quickly as wounds not exposed to NGF. Nonetheless, undesirable bacteria can also be passed from the saliva of dogs and humans to wounds so the picture is not all positive.
 Johns, Catherine. Dogs: History, Myth, Art (2008) The British Museum Press, at 26.
 Selkirk Veterinary Hospital. “Why does my dog lick me?” (2011) Lifelearn webDVM. By contrast, if a dog is constantly licking objects, surfaces or even itself, it may indicate an underlying medical or behavioural problem that requires medical intervention. See, for example: Tynes, Valarie V., “Help! My dog licks everything” (April 1, 2008) Veterinary Medicine: dvm360.
 Above, note 2, at 25.