You get home from work and are greeted by your dog pacing back and forth, wagging their tail, with happy barks, so excited to see you. You get down at his level to give a good head rub and you are greeted with a slobbery mix of puppy kisses. He licks your face as if you’ve been gone for months. But why do dogs lick people? Is it just a greeting and how do they learn to lick people? Certainly not from watching humans interact with each other. Let’s find out.
How do Dogs Learn to Lick People?
Dogs lick people to show affection and deference. They learn to lick from their mothers. Mother dogs will lick their puppies to groom them and show affection. The puppies return their affection by licking their mothers back. You will also see puppies licking each other, showing a little sibling love. Researchers who study wolves also believe that licking may play a role in survival. Wolf pups will lick their mothers moths when they are hungry to get the mother to regurgitate her food and provide the pups with dinner. This is called “regurgitated food transfer” which occurs in domestic dogs as well. It seems to be a transition phase in weaning the pups off of the mother’s milk and onto solid foods. So pups learn that when they lick, they get fed, a good association.
Why do Dogs Lick People?
- Dogs lick people to show affection: When your dog licks you when you get home from work they are showing affection. It is similar to humans exchanging a kiss. The behavior is reinforced and it makes the dogs feel good. Research shows that when dogs use licking as a greeting it releases endorphins, the chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Dogs and people tend to repeat the things that give us those feelings.
- Dogs lick people to get attention: If you are snuggled on the couch with you dog, reading a book and he nudges over to lick your face he may just be trying to get your attention. If you are typing away on an important email and he starts licking your feet he may want you to take a break from work and give him some loving. The nose nudging and licking are his ways of getting attention.
- Dogs use licking as a sensory input: We use our hands and fingers as a way to learn about our surroundings. Dogs paws do not serve the same function so they use their tongues to figure things out. Our skin may seem ordinary but everything we touch can be intriguing to a dog and they may lick or hands out of curiosity, similar to how they sniff the ground when out on a walk.
- People taste good: If you had the same thing for breakfast and dinner every day for your entire life, you might enjoy some other tastes as well! Besides your dog’s regular dog food and a few dog treats here and there they probably enjoy a few other tastes. Your skin has a natural saltiness especially after a hot day or a work out. You may also have scented lotions that your dog wants to explore.
Can Dogs Get Sick From Licking You?
If you just lathered up with some sunscreen it is best to not let your dog lick you, but for the most part it is safe for your dog to lick you. It may seem gross for your dog to lick your feet, but that is also pretty harmless. Unless you have medication on your skin, like a psoriasis cream, your dog should be fine. If your dog is vomiting or has diarrhea consider if they may have ingested something from your skin.
Can You Get Sick From Your Dog Licking You?
Your dog’s licks are not harmful. Dog’s do have bacteria in their mouths and that can be transmitted to humans, but unless you have an open sore that your dog licks it is unlikely that the bacteria could be transmitted.
Can You Teach a Dog Not to Lick You?
Let’s face it, we know our dogs get into things that we would not want to be licked afterwards. If your dog proudly drops a dead squirrel at your feet you are probably not going to want any puppy kisses right after that. Some people are also just not into being licked by their dog. You can train your dog not to lick by not rewarding the behavior. If your dog starts to lick you, you can calmly get up and walk out of the room. Replace attention getting by initiating more contact with your dog. Pet them more frequently and show them affection with words when they are not licking.
Can You Teach a Dog Not to Lick Visitors?
While you may love being greeted by puppy kisses, your mother-in-law may not be as excited about them. If you don’t want your dog to lick visitors you can train them in the same way you train them not to jump up on guests. Reinforce good behavior and don’t reward the unwanted behavior. You can also let your visitors know that your “dog is a licker”. If they do love puppy kisses they can be at their level, if not they can avoid it.
Can a Dog Lick Too Much?
There are conditions such as anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders that lead to excessive licking. If you see this behavior you should take your dog to the vet to get then evaluated. Behavior specialists can help figure out what is causing your dog stress and anxiety. They can help your dog cope with those issues so that they do not resort to licking. Some vets may recommend a calming bed for your dog.
Can you rely on your dog’s licks as an alarm clock?
Some dog owners are woken every morning by a series of licks from their dog. Depending on if it is 5 am or not you may enjoy this morning routine. Dogs can be taught to stick to a pretty regular routine. If they continuously get you up too early you can try a few ways to get them to sleep in. Try letting them out a little later at night, keep the curtains closed so the sunlight doesn’t sneak in and feed them at the same time every morning. On the flip side, if you have an important 9 am Zoom call I wouldn’t rely on your Corgi’s early morning licks to get you up, they might not be quite that reliable.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © ESB Professional/Shutterstock.com
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