Opinions on dog licks can be divided into two camps. There are people who think it’s super cute and affectionate. Then, there are others who find it a bit gross. However you feel about it, most dog owners have asked “Why do dogs lick you?” at some point in their lives.
The answers lie in canine evolution, instinct and training. It is usually a combination of seeking attention, giving affection and a whole host of other things. We set out the main reasons here together with some top hacks on how to stop your dog licking you if it is getting a little out of hand!
Why Do Dogs Lick You?
Licking for a dog is instinctual. It is something they learn as pups and they carry on doing it for the whole of their lives. Experts believe that dogs lick for a combination of the following reasons:
They Are Being Affectionate
Let’s start with the most popular reason with dog owners – we all like to think that our pooch loves us! The good news is that dog licks can signal affection. The very first affection that dogs experience is from their mothers, and this is shown through licking. It builds up a bond between Mom dog and pup and makes the pups feel safe. When a dog is licked, their body releases dopamine and endorphins – these are both feel-good hormones that make them feel relaxed and happy. We replicate this by stroking our dogs but they can’t stroke us back, so they lick us instead.
Some dogs like licking more than others. If your dog is not a big fan of licking you, don’t despair. It does not mean that they don’t love you. They just prefer to show that in other ways. Some breeds lick more than others. If you want a dog that will lick you a lot, it would be best to opt for a Labrador Retriever, a Golden Retriever or a Poodle.
Most licking behavior starts off as affection but then it can change into some of the following reasons.
They Want Attention
If you react in a positive way when you get licked by your dog, you are rewarding them with attention. Dogs like attention! Any sort of attention is valuable to a dog and is a lot better than being ignored. That includes you pushing them away and saying ‘no’.
Your dog will soon learn that they get your attention by licking you and every time you react to it, you are re-enforcing that behavior. Very soon, licking will be adopted by your dog as attention-seeking behavior.
They Want to Empathize
Some recent studies have shown that dogs were more likely to lick owners who pretended to cry than those who were talking or humming. This may simply be a reaction to a different noise, but it is possible that dogs are able to recognize some human emotions and respond to them.
Dogs and humans have been companions for thousands of years so it is possible that dogs have learnt how to interpret some human emotions. Dogs find licking comforting and so they are trying to comfort their human friends.
They Are Submitting
Dogs also lick as a sign of submission and appeasement. Nervous dogs are more likely to display this behavior. There are often other body language signals to indicate that they are submitting such as rolling on their back.
They Like the Taste
Human skin often has a layer of sweat on it and this contains salts. Dogs like the taste of salt so they may lick you because they like the taste. If you have just eaten a burger, there will be some of the juices on your hands and face and this will make a dog want to lick you even more.
They Are Grooming You
Grooming is a method of bonding for dogs so when your dog licks you, they may simply be trying to groom you. This type of licking tends to be preceded by a sniff (to see if you need grooming) and is quite a relaxed and leisurely type of lick.
They Are Hungry
Dogs thrive on routine and have an internal clock. They know when it is time for them to be fed. The thought that a mealtime is approaching can make them feel excited and they start to lick their owners to calm themselves down. They also use it as a way of reminding their owners that they need to get up and prepare their dinner!
Are Licks Dog Kisses?
Dogs don’t really understand kissing. It is a part of human behavior and not canine behavior. Nevertheless, licking can be a sign of affection and a method of bonding so there is nothing wrong in you interpreting it this way if you want to. Wild dogs sometimes lick each other as a greeting. Link to ‘do dogs like being kissed’ article
There are a few other possible explanations for the behavior though. One popular theory is connected to the lives of wild dogs including wolves and coyotes. The pups will lick the mouths of the parent dog as they return to the den. This is to get the parent to regurgitate partly digested food for the pups to eat. This is not as an attractive thought as an affectionate kiss so many dog owners try not to think about this!
Is It Healthy For a Dog To Kiss You?
For most dogs and most humans, licking is not too much of a problem as long as it is not near your mouth. Some humans are allergic to dog saliva because it contains 12 different proteins that can be allergens for some people. This is something to watch out for.
Dog saliva can contain harmful bacteria, viruses and protozoa that can cause nasty diseases. It can also contain the eggs of parasites. If you ingest any of these you may end up with worms or an illness. So, it is always best to avoid being licked near your mouth.
For the same reason, it is not a good idea to let your dog lick your skin near an open wound. Researchers have found 600 different types of bacteria in dog’s mouths and some of these have the potential to infect your wound.
Finally, if you are immunocompromised because of an illness or because of medication that you are taking, it is very important that your dog does not lick your face.
What Causes Excessive Dog Licking?
Most of us can put up with at least some licking but in some dogs, it gets out of control. Excessive licking is not a good thing because it can indicate that something is wrong. Have a chat with your vet if your dog is licking excessively. Here are some of the potential issues.
Dogs with anxiety can lick a lot because it is a natural calming mechanism. It releases chemicals that make dogs feel happy and more relaxed. If this is a short-term issue triggered by you moving home or getting another dog, it should soon calm down.
However, if it carries on for several weeks you should try to discover what is making your pooch anxious. Separation anxiety is one potential cause. Dogs that are left alone for long periods can suffer from this condition. We have outlined some ways to combat this below.
Obsessive compulsive disorder
It is possible for dogs to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) although it is not seen very often. It is triggered when a dog endures prolonged anxiety and stress. Obsessive licking is a classic symptom of OCD in dogs, but they lick everything not just humans. They lick objects around the house, themselves and their human companions. This is such a high state of anxiety that you must consult your vet for some help with this. It is quite likely that your dog will need medication to help them calm down. Then, you can start to introduce a training regime to help them and for this you may need to consult an animal behaviorist. Once the training takes effect, you can start to withdraw the medication.
Boredom in dogs is closely related to anxiety. Dogs that do not get enough mental and physical stimulation feel bored and this leads to anxiety. Some of the working breeds of dogs, such as the Cocker Spaniels and German Shepherds, need a huge amount of exercise and mental stimulation to keep them happy. We give you some ideas for this below.
Pain and allergies
Dogs who are in pain or who are suffering from allergies usually lick themselves rather than their owners. However, this obsessive behavior can spill over to licking their human companions too. These dogs are obviously agitated and are finding it hard to get comfortable and relax. You should visit your vet so that they can help you work out what is wrong.
How To Stop a Dog Licking You Too Much
If you want to call time on your dog’s licking habit or at least reduce it a little. Here are some things that you can try:
- Move your hand away. If your hand or foot is getting licked, move it away without making eye contact with your dog. Remain neutral and don’t say anything.
- Walk away. Stop giving your dog attention and get up and walk away without making a big fuss. Then, reward your dog with attention and a treat for not licking.
- Train when to lick. The best approach to get a dog to stop doing something is to teach them to do it but only with a given command. So, teach your dog to lick, perhaps with a ‘kiss’ command. This is the only time that they are allowed to lick you.
- Redirection. If the licking is from boredom, give your dog something else to do! Teach them a new trick, take them to dog sports or play a game of fetch.
- Mental stimulation. Excessive licking that is caused by separation anxiety can be helped by giving your dog interactive toys that stimulate their mind.
- Exercise. Make sure that your dog has plenty of exercise, both on and off the leash, where it is safe for them to do so.
- Be patient and consistent. As with all dog training, changing this behavior is going to require the whole family to adopt the same approach. It also needs to be a gradual process.
- Tackle pain and allergies. If you dog has an allergy, consider changing to a special dog food for allergies. If the are in pain, you need to see your vet.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © L Galbraith/Shutterstock.com
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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Why do dogs lick your hands?
Dogs lick hands and feet (link to why do dogs lick your feet) primarily because they are available! They are not covered in clothes and are at the extremities of your body where your dog can get hold of them! You pet your dog with your hands so they are close to their body and an obvious target to lick. Also, if you have been eating or snacking, your hands will taste of food and dogs will love the taste.
Why do dogs lick your ears and face?
Dogs like to lick faces and ears. They often target them in preference to other parts of the body. This may be because they smell fascinating to your dog. Ears contain ear wax which, to your dog’s hyper-sensitive sense of smell, is very appealing. Your face has probably got some particles from your last meal on it even if you are unaware. Although, don’t forget that wild dogs lick their parent’s mouths to make them vomit up food so that they can eat it!
Whys do dogs lick your tears?
This one is simple. Tears are salty and dogs love the taste of salt. They may also want to empathize with you and many experts suspect that dogs can pick up on human emotion. They may be trying to comfort you in their own way.
Why do dogs lick you in the morning?
There could be a number of reasons. If you sleep in a separate room to your dog, they are probably simply pleased to see you. Also, we secrete a different type of oil and sweat when we sleep so we probably smell a bit different and our dogs want to check out if we taste different too.
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