Our dogs have unique means of communicating with each other that don’t exactly fit in the human world. The most obvious is all the sniffing that clearly crosses some personal boundaries.
But then there’s the licking and some dogs seem especially interested in licking both friendly and strange dogs. While that’s already weird enough, other pups have a specific interest in licking the eyes of other dogs.
What’s going on here? Why do dogs lick each other’s eyes?
Dogs may lick the eyes of another dog as a way of saying hello to new canines and indicating that they’re friendly. They may also do it as a way to help with grooming another dog and shared grooming can help build bonds. Other dogs may just like the salty taste around the eye.
That’s the quick answer but let’s take a closer look at what’s behind this weird canine habit!
Reason 1: Submission and Appeasement
Traditional dominance theory that previously led trainers to use forceful techniques like the alpha roll has been completely and thoroughly debunked. While there is a hierarchy to our dog’s lives, it’s not all based on submission, dominance, and force.
Within this hierarchy, there are signals of assertiveness and appeasement- or using traditional terms dominance and submission. These include a long list of body postures and actions like teeth chattering, submissive smiles, and licking the eyes and face among other things.
These appeasement signals can occur between dogs that live together but if you’re seeing your dog lick eyes when they meet a new canine then it’s likely meant as a sign of appeasement. It’s your dog’s way of saying hello, showing respect, and a signal that they’re not looking for any trouble.
Licks related to appeasement are usually quick and short. While many dogs seem to prefer going for the eyes, the muzzle is also a popular spot. This video does a great job showing what an appeasement lick looks like:
Reason 2: Cleaning and Grooming
Your dog’s love of licking their canine companion’s eyes may have a more practical purpose too! Dogs obviously can’t lick their own eyes which means it’s an area that can’t be groomed without a little help.
Dogs may simply be trying to help out their friend by clearing out any discharge and giving them a little clean-up. Of course, some dogs are a bit more eager to help with the grooming than others and your eye licking dog could be especially eager about cleaning their friend’s face.
Dogs that fall into this category will lick other dogs’ eyes for longer than they would as part of an appeasement behavior. It’s most likely to occur during moments of relaxation and calm just like most other grooming behaviors.
In other words, grooming is more likely to explain eye licking at home with a close canine companion than it is at the dog park with dozens of other dogs and plenty of activity.
Reason 3: Dogs Like The Taste
Okay, I know this one is quite gross but some dogs may get into the habit of licking other dogs’ eyes because they enjoy the taste. They may like the salty taste of tears that a healthy eye produces, the taste of eye crusts, or both.
I can’t say what eye crusts taste like but I do know that dogs seem to be interested in a wide range of gross or unusual items ranging from acorns to toe nails and everything in between.
But it’s the saltiness of the eye that’s likely to be especially appealing for dogs. Many species, including humans, deer, and dogs, are known to crave salt. What could have started as a sign of appeasement or a little help with grooming could be positively reinforced by the “treat” of salty tears or eye crusts.
I know, it’s still gross.
A few tears and some crust is normal, but dogs can also suffer from excessive tear production or ocular discharge as a result of a wide range of conditions. These conditions could make the other dog’s eyes even more appealing in the same way that some dogs are attracted to the smell of a yeast infection in the ear of another dog.
Still, you shouldn’t assume that your dog’s love of licking other dogs’ eyes means there’s a medical issue and for most dogs, salty tears are more than enough of a treat to keep the behavior going.
Dogs that are eye licking because they like the taste are more likely to engage in the behavior in just about any setting since for a dog there’s no bad time for a treat. You should also expect longer licks with much more focus than an appeasement lick.
Reason 4: Bonding and Companionship
Licking can also be a sign of friendship and a way for dogs to build their bond with each other. Licking as a form of bonding or companionship isn’r exclusive to the eyes but the taste may motivate some dogs to focus on that area more than others.
Mother dogs lick their puppies from the moment they’re born and continue to lick their pups long into their first several months of life. As a result, dogs know licking as a positive, friendly, and familial experience which makes it a great way to show affection as an adult.
Bonding alone probably isn’t the only explanation for the licking and the extra benefits of salty tears, appeasement and grooming are all inseparable from bonding. In other words, one dog licking another dog’s eyes can be a way to bond and get a nice taste.
Should You Worry About Your Dog’s Eye Licking Habit?
In most cases, there isn’t much to worry about and dogs licking eyes is normal behavior. However, any behavior that starts suddenly is worth some concern, and if you’re ever unsure consult your veterinarian.
In rare cases, it could be related to an obsessive disorder where dogs are compelled to lick although it’s rare that these disorders drive dogs to lick other dogs and especially a somewhat hard-to-reach area like the eyes.
It’s also possible that a medical concern related to the eyes has made it more appealing for dogs to lick. Any condition that increases occur discharge my increase the interest for dogs that already like to lick. You’ll usually notice this discharge pretty clearly and any change to the eye is a good reason to bring your dog to the veterinarian.
However, it’s completely normal for friendly pups to work in an eye lick when they meet a new canine or during some downtime to help with grooming.
How To Discourage Eye Licking Behavior
You wouldn’t want to discourage eye licking at the dog park as part of greeting behavior and even though it may not make sense to us, it’s an important part of canine communication.
But within the household, overly eager eye licking dogs can lead to some minor conflict or at least an annoyed dog that’s tired of having their eyes groomed.
The best way to manage this type of licking is to keep your dog entertained and offer something else to do. Because your dog is already a natural licker, something that involves licking is ideal. That could be as simple as a kong with some peanut butter in it but my personal favorite is the Licki Mat that we featured on our list of the best ways to entertain dogs that don’t like toys.
Licki Mats are textured mats that you can smear any kind of gooey treat on. Depending on the type of mat you get and what you use to coat it, this could occupy dogs for quite some time!
It might seem like our dogs are just being weird when they lick the eyes of another dog.
But instead of being weird, some dogs are just being gross!
Jokes aside, licking the eyes can be part of complex communication that may not make sense for us but most dogs will read the signal loud and clear.
What do you think best explains your dog’s drive to lick eyes?