Only Tongue Will Tell: What Your Dog's Tongue is Telling You

As you may know, the tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body  — accommodating our ability to speak to others and to aid in tasting and savoring the food we eat. The tongue is also the strongest muscle in a dog… and maybe even the smartest muscle. A dog will reveal their tongue for various reasons ranging from anxiety to playfulness to fatigue. Here are a few reasons why you may see (or not see) a dog tongue.

For starters, you will see a dog’s tongue more often than not because it is the hardest working part of a dog’s sensory perception outside of the brain. With their nose and tongue, a dog makes judgements about unfamiliar objects or new experiences. And a tongue acts as a dog’s chief input and output device! It is used to communicate, to lap up water, to greet, to clean a wound… frankly, it would be odd if you DIDN’T see your dog’s tongue! Amazingly, a dog’s tongue has five nerve endings which are sensitive enough to detect subtle information. These nerves are connected directly to the brain as opposed to the spinal column like most nerve endings. Also, the tongue is very resilient and can mitigate injuries extremely well which is surprising in light of its sensory sensitivity.

Panting: A dog does not sweat and, instead, cools down with their tongue. They only have sweat glands on their paw pads, and consequentially need to pant with their tongue out to regulate their body temperature. The moisture in their lungs cools the surface of their body as they breathe in and out large panting breaths. Dogs are actually very inefficient at beating the heat due to their anatomy, so always be wary how long you are keeping your dog out in the sun.

Yawning: When a dog yawns, they are probably tired. Easy enough! But sometimes a dog will use yawning as a way of expressing anxiety. Research has shown that a dog may yawn as a way to indicate their discomfort in an unfamiliar environment or uncertainty in an unexpected situation. Unlike bearing teeth, this is a more submissive than hostile gesture.

Licking: Similar to yawning, a lick can mean affection but can also be a way to vie for attention or security. A dog can say hello with their lick, but it is also a way of “reaching out” to feel connected to another being. This goes back to when a dog’s a pup and uses licking as a means to clean their fellow brothers and sisters in the litter. This becomes a bonding experience and translates as a signal of approval in dog language. This is why a dog licking their own nose or the air is a sign of discomfort. It’s as if they are reaching out to lick someone who isn’t there.

Tense: A red flag for any dog owner is the “clenched mouth.” If you’re out and about with your pooch and they tense up in the face and are not actively panting, then this is a sign of restraint. Usually, this happens when one dog approaches another dog and feels threatened or the need to make a show of force. The clenched face is usually hiding behind it an urge to bark or bite. Keep this in mind. A dog with their tongue out is a contented dog.

Hanging Tongue Syndrome: Just as a hidden tongue is a red flag, so is an ever-present one. This may be a condition popularly described as hanging tongue syndrome. There are various reasons why your dog cannot keep their tongue in their mouths. If they cannot retract it at will, consult a veterinarian. This may be inherent to the dog’s facial structure or may be caused by a dental infection. Also, if you’re worried about your dog’s tongue drying out and swelling, apply olive oil to the tongue. As said, there are many reasons why a dog would keep their tongue out ranging from benign to severe. Be alert, but proportionate. After all, your dog just may be happy to see you 🙂