The myth that dogs’ mouths are cleaner than human mouths isn’t true — but that won’t stop your dog from licking your face… or you from enjoying it!
Many dog owners love the sign of affection dogs give when their faces are licked by their furry best friends. Affection isn’t the only reason that dogs lick your face, though!
Keep reading to discover 10 interesting reasons dogs always lick your face, including expert insights from dog trainers and behavioral specialists.
The Top 10 Reasons Dogs Always Lick Your Face
Affection, anxiety, and instinct remain some of the top reasons that dogs communicate their feelings through licking.
It’s a Sign of Affection
The top thought about the reason behind dogs licking faces is affection. Dog temperaments vary by breed and individual, but it’s a pretty reliable thought to think that your dog is showing you love when they lick your face.
In conversation with A-Z Animals, Dr. Kathryn Rosalie Dench, a veterinary surgeon with Gentle Dog Trainers, shared that “One of the primary reasons dogs lick their owners’ faces is to express affection and strengthen the bond between them. Licking is a natural behavior in dogs, and they often see their owners as part of their social pack. It’s a way for them to show love and attachment.”
This affection manifests in several ways. Not only do dogs enjoy showing their love for you through licks and kisses on the cheek, they acknowledge their place in the pack by licking you.
Finally, affection might come through in licking by avenue of grooming. Grooming remains another sign of respect and care for the pack, so your pup might be trying to groom your face, hair, or beard by licking you.
It’s in their DNA
Did you know that wolves were most likely domesticated into dogs by accident?
Thousands of years ago, docile gray wolves began to become domesticated in early human societies. While experts debate and speculate on the cause of domestication, the two main schools of thought include:
- Wolves and early dogs cleverly exploited human kindness to get out of the cold.
- Humans began to give wolves food, shelter, and protection in exchange for protection, companionship, and assistance with hunting.
However they became domesticated, the behavior of licking faces remains rooted in their wolf counterparts. Andrew Garf, a professional dog trainer for over 10 years, supported the claim, telling A-Z Animals that “Dogs descended from wolves, who would lick each other’s faces as a way to strengthen pack bonds and social standing.”
To Make You Vomit
It sounds gross, but this is a natural behavior puppies learn from their mothers right out of the womb.
In a conversation with A-Z Animals, Susan Nilson — a dog training and behavior expert with CAPBT and PPAB professional accreditations — shared that “Starting at a young age, puppies learn they can stimulate their mother into regurgitating partially-digested food they can eat simply by licking her mouth and lips.”
Ginger Burke, a veterinary assistant and lifelong pet owner, backed up the reasoning, citing DNA as well as puppyhood behavior.
“One weird reason dogs lick their owner’s faces is that they are trying to get you to throw up your food. Puppies, coyotes, and foxes all like to lick their mother’s mouth after a hunt. Puppies lick their mother’s face to signal that they’re hungry, and mom will often feed them with regurgitated food.”
That might not be how humans feed their young, but it’s an interesting reason to get your face licked nonetheless.
To Feel Comforted
Dr. Dench also informed A-Z Animals that face licking in dogs might come from a place of pure comfort.
“In a dog’s early life, licking is a way to get attention and care from their mother. When they lick their owners, they may be seeking attention, comfort, or even indicating that they’re hungry or in need of something.”
If your dog has a heightened response to stress — be it the mail person, a thunderstorm, the vacuum cleaner, or some other household sound — they may lick your face to find reassurance. This behavior may also include barking, pacing, licking their lips, or hiding under furniture.
To Communicate with You
Without words, dogs need to find another way to communicate. Out of all the creative ways they’ve found to get their wants and needs across, licking might be the cutest. Dogs don’t just lick humans’ faces to indicate what they want or need, though. They lick each other, too.
“Licking also serves as an important way for dogs to communicate with each other,” said Nilson. “You’ll often see dogs licking each other’s faces as a friendly greeting or a gesture of affection.”
It’s a Sign that They’re Anxious
Just like some dogs dig into the couch, bite the legs of furniture, or pee inside, your dog may lick your face as a way to communicate that they’re anxious. Because, as mentioned above, the behavior of licking is pleasing and comforting to dogs, they could be seeking comfort from their most-trusted friend in a time of anxiety.
Dr. Dench shared that “Licking can be a stress-relief mechanism for dogs. It releases endorphins, which can help them feel more relaxed and calmer. If your dog licks you when they’re anxious or in unfamiliar situations, it may be a coping mechanism.”
Garf chimed in, adding to the evidence and suggesting alternatives if anxiety is the root of your dog’s face-licking. “Some dogs may lick faces excessively due to anxiety or boredom. Consider Your dog’s mood and redirect them if needed.”
To Learn More About Their World
Dogs often learn their world by tasting and smelling rather than seeing. Did you know a dog’s sense of smell, at its least, is 10,000 times more powerful than a human’s, and at most 100,000 times more powerful?
Have you ever wondered why your puppy eats grass, poop, or other weird things? They’re trying to explore and learn more about their world. Ray McNally, a trainer with over 30 years of experience in dog behavior, told A-Z Animals that “licking has a practical purpose. Dogs have an acute sense of smell, and by licking your face, they can gather information about where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing. It’s their way of learning more about their environment and the people they love.”
You might not be able to take your pup to the grocery store with you, but that won’t stop them from smelling and tasting the atmosphere of the store on you when you get home!
Additionally, affable dogs of family and friends may lick you after not seeing you for a while. Again, it’s their way of learning more about you and where you’ve been since you’ve seen them last.
Because You Like It
As with other behaviors, dogs with strong bonds to their owners will continue behaviors that get positively reinforced. If your dog licking your face makes you happy — whether you pet them, laugh, hug them, or kiss them back — they can tell. A positive reaction to their behavior connects the dots in their brains that “licking mom or dad means they’re happy.” Because licking is a comforting action to them as well, they’ll continue to do it in earnest. Be careful how much you encourage the behavior, though! Sometimes dogs take it to the extreme, like Garf and his dog cookie.
“My own labradoodle, Cookie, takes licking to the next level. When I get home, she kisses my face like her life depends on it! She’ll lick for minutes straight if I let her. I’ve taught her the command no kisses because it can get a bit much. But her enthusiasm always makes me laugh and feels reassuring.”
While some dogs pick who they lick — like just their immediate family — others will lick anyone and everyone. So, if you’re encouraging their licking behavior, it may behoove you to have a “stop” command when the affection gets too close for comfort.
To Show Empathy
Dogs are emotional creatures. If you have a poodle, labrador retriever, golden retriever, or German shepherd, you may own one of the most emotionally intelligent dog breeds.
With such significant intelligence about human emotions and feelings, dogs will try to influence how you feel with whatever they can do. As mentioned above, if they’ve received a positive reaction from you after licking your face, your dog may try to lick your face when you’re sad to make you happy, comfort you, or simply communicate that they’re there.
To Get Food
With such a great sense of smell, your pup may want a taste of the meal you’re having (and not sharing with them).
According to Ginger, “Stinky breath may make your dating life difficult, but dogs love the smell of stinky food. If they’re licking your mouth after a particularly pungent meal, they’re just trying to get a taste.”
Or, your pup simply might lick your face because you’ve just eaten and have a bit of mustard, ketchup, or peanut butter on your cheek. “If you’ve recently eaten something tasty or have an interesting scent on your face, your dog may lick you out of curiosity or to savor the taste,” says Dr. Dench.
After all, what’s a best friend’s role if not to help you clean up whatever is on your face?
No Licking vs. Excessive Licking: Is My Dog Okay?
If your dog doesn’t lick you, it doesn’t mean they love you less than their lick-happy counterparts do.
According to Dr. Dench, “Research has also shown that some aspects of licking behavior may be inherited. It can be influenced by a dog’s genetics and early experiences with their mother and littermates.” If your dog was rescued or had a rough puppyhood, they might not have seen the behavior modeled.
On the other side of the spectrum, excessive licking might be cause for concern. Dr. Dench shared with A-Z Animals that “while licking is a normal behavior for dogs, excessive licking can sometimes indicate an underlying issue. If your dog suddenly starts licking excessively, it could be due to medical problems, allergies, or discomfort.”
If your dog constantly licks a specific part of their body, it might make sense to contact your vet and get to the root of the problem.
My Dog Doesn’t Lick: Are They Okay?
If your dog doesn’t lick you, it doesn’t mean they love you less than their lick-happy counterparts do. Most of the time, puppies pick up licking behaviors from their parents or littermates — and if your dog was rescued or had a rough puppyhood, they might not have seen the behavior modeled.
According to Dr. Dench, “Research has also shown that some aspects of licking behavior may be
inherited. It can be influenced by a dog’s genetics and early experiences with their mother and littermates.”
Dogs Lick for Lots of Reasons
Between their intrinsic drive, their hunger, and their genuine affection for you, it’s no wonder many dogs like to lick their owners! Knowing your dog’s behavior and patterns can help you come to a better understanding of them.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Zontica
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