If you own a dog, chances are you’re no stranger to a little slobber (or maybe a lot of it). Regardless of their breed, size, age, or other variations, dogs are almost universally lickers by nature. They’re also exposed to it as puppies, because their mothers lick them to clean and groom them and to stimulate them to urinate and defecate. Puppies also lick their mothers’ faces to ask for food and affection. The behavior can be trained out of them, but the instinct is a strong one nonetheless.
If you’ve ever wondered why your dog might exhibit this behavior toward humans as an adult dog, this article is for you. There are actually several reasons why a dog might lick a person, some of which you may not have known. Here are some of the most common reasons for licking:
Licking as a Greeting
Often, your dog licks you when you arrive home or enter a room as a form of greeting. This simple and universal “hello” may not be the most hygienic, but it’s what dogs know. If you decide to train your dog not to lick you as a greeting, it’s advisable to find some other way you can encourage him to say hi.
Bonding and Showing Love Through Licking
If humans can show love by kissing, it stands to reason that dogs can show love with their mouths as well. Dogs are social animals, designed to be part of a pack, and they have a strong desire to form and foster close relationships with their pack members. Dog “kisses,” therefore, can be a sign of affection and a way to build their relationship with you.
In many species, grooming is a bonding activity, so dogs also use their tongues to groom one another and to groom humans (even if they don’t need or want to be groomed) as a way to bond with them. It can be a way to comfort you as well if your dog perceives that you’re upset.
Tongues Are for Tasting
This one is so obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Your dog might simply lick you because you taste good or because he is trying to get more information about something he smells on your skin (like the taco you had for dinner, maybe). Dogs can also smell your hormones and other chemicals in your sweat, so they lick at the source of those scents to learn more about how you’re feeling and what’s going on in your body.
I’d Lick Your Attention
Dogs sometimes lick us to get our attention, whether it’s to ask for affection, tell us they’re hungry, or alert us to some form of danger. Dogs don’t have hands to gently place on your arm, and many humans frown on their dogs putting a paw up on them, so dogs are left with little choice but to use their head or their tongue.
Some types of service dogs are even trained to use their tongues to get their owners’ attention when there’s some sort of health emergency happening, such as the beginning of a seizure episode or dangerously high or low blood sugar. They may also use their tongues to help comfort or wake up a person who is in the middle of such a health crisis.
Licking as a Self-Soothing Mechanism
Dogs get stressed sometimes, just like people do, and they sometimes use oral fixations as coping tools, just like humans do. Licking releases endorphins that calm the brain, so it’s a favorite self-soothing technique of many canines.
You may have seen a dog excessively lick his front paws or some other area of his body when he’s anxious, but doggos also sometimes lick their humans as a way of self-soothing or requesting reassurance.
Licking can sometimes be a sign that your dog is trying to soothe the symptoms of allergies, infections, pain, or even a compulsive disorder. Consult your vet if you believe your pet may have a medical condition for which licking may be a symptom.
Licking Different Body Parts Means Different Things
Did you know that your dog could be trying to communicate different things by licking different parts of your body? A dog who licks your hand is probably trying to get your attention or taste what’s on your fingers. A dog who licks your feet might like the way you smell and taste or be looking for information about you that’s present in your sweat. Licking your ears could be a grooming behavior and a sign of familiarity.
Experts believe that dogs may lick people’s legs to show submissiveness or gratefulness. They may also do it to demonstrate that they’re comfortable with the recipient and not afraid.
A dog who licks your face is generally acting like a puppy as a way of bonding with you as their owner – for better or worse, we encourage dogs to stay puppies for their whole lives by volunteering to be their lifelong caregivers.
Should I Let My Dog Lick Me?
Most experts agree it’s generally okay to let the family dog lick your skin, although it may not be a good idea to let a strange dog on the street put its tongue on you. It’s also best to keep dog saliva away from open wounds and sores, as well as away from mucus membranes (e.g. mouth, nose, eyelids), so letting your dog lick your face isn’t generally advised, although plenty of dog owners do it.
In the end, how much and where your dog is allowed to lick you and other people in your home is up to you. Just know that there are potential health risks involved because the germs in a dog’s saliva are different than the germs humans typically host on and in our bodies, especially if your dog has access to outdoor spaces, litter boxes, and other places that can harbor bacteria and diseases. Serious bacterial infections from dog saliva are rare, but they have occurred.
How Do I Train My Dog Not to Lick?
Luckily, if you don’t like licking, there’s something you can do about it. For many dogs, a firm “no” and the removal of the body part you don’t want licked from their reach will suffice over time. Other dogs may be encouraged by that level of attention, even if it’s negative attention, so it may be better to turn away, stop touching your dog, and ignore him when licking occurs to discourage it. It can also help to pick a replacement behavior you’d prefer them to engage in and reward them with praise and a treat when they stop licking you and perform that behavior instead.
Dogs may be hardwired to lick, but they’re also eager to learn and eager to please. Some dogs may be harder to train than others, but it’s always doable.
Whether or not you choose to let your dog lick you, we hope having a better understanding of this instinctual behavior will help you deal with licking in a more positive way. It’s important to understand what your dog is trying to say with his tongue and fulfill his needs in other ways if he’s not allowed to lick you.
We’d love to hear whether you let your dog lick you and why. Tell us your opinion in the comments!