Most pet parents view their dog’s licking as a sign of affection, i.e., the closest our furry friends can get to giving us a kiss. But what does it actually mean when our dogs lick us? And is there anything we can do if the licking is getting out of control?
What Does It Mean When a Dog Licks You?
When packs of wild dogs are studied, many will display licking behavior to welcome pack members back or as a shared grooming experience. Your dog licking you as an exuberant greeting after a hard day at work may simply be them welcoming you back to the pack! Wild dogs and wolves will lick their mother’s face to interact, gain attention, request feeding, or as a submissive behavior to other canines. Licking other dogs’ faces may also be a way of detecting scent hormones, or pheromones, that can give social clues and information about pack members. Our canine friends might be gaining more information than we think about us.
Alternatively, your dog may just think you taste nice! Humans generally have salty skin, especially if you have been sweating. Those puppy licks could be more about searching for something tasty than giving affection.
Most dogs lick to demonstrate affection, especially with people to whom they are closely bonded. When puppies are young, their mothers spend a lot of time licking and grooming them as a nurturing behavior. Happy hormones, or endorphins, are released with this behavior allowing dogs to feel calm and relaxed. Dogs learn that this behavior is pleasurable, and so repeat it to their pack members – be they human or canine!
So, Why Does My Dog Lick My Face?
Ultimately, dogs will lick your face because you have taught them that this behavior gets your attention (similar to tilting their heads). Even actions that are intended to be negative, such as squealing or shouting when your puppy or dog licks your face, will be interpreted as attention. This way, your dog learns that a quick lick is a good way to get you to interact with him or her.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Feet?
Just as dogs lick your face or any other parts of your body, they will lick your feet to give you attention and affection. Feet may be extra sweaty or smelly, which makes them all the more enticing to your dog! Even fresh out of the shower, by licking you, your dog is trying to impart their familiar scent back onto you. Again, this behavior is reinforced by attention from you.
When Is Licking a Problem?
The occasional slurp from your pet is part of owning a dog. Who doesn’t want a kiss? However, not everyone wants to be covered in drool and there are good reasons why. Dogs lick their own bottoms and genitals, and those of their canine companions if given the chance! If your dog’s idea of a great time is helping himself to a buffet of roadkill or scavenging a half-eaten sandwich from the bushes while out on a walk, you may not welcome a huge canine kiss!
Dogs’ mouths can contain large numbers of bacteria that can make humans sick. While there is little absorption of canine saliva through the skin, touching your mouth or face afterward can lead to you ingesting these bacteria. Dogs’ mouths can carry parasites as well as bacteria. Some of these parasites, such as Giardia, Hookworm, and Cryptosporidium, can be passed onto humans. Although the chance of infection is relatively low, it may make you think twice before allowing your dog to lick you!
What Should You Do If You Want Your Dog to Stop Licking?
Although licking is mostly intended as a way of demonstrating affection, excessive licking can become an annoyance to you. No compulsive behavior is good for them, or for you.
The most effective way to stop your dog from licking you is to remove the positive reinforcement of the behavior. Ignoring them, moving away, or stopping the positive rewards, such as stroking or grooming them, when they are displaying this behavior means your dog will quickly learn it is not in their interest to continue. Once they have stopped, you can turn back to them and give them affection, thus reinforcing a calm, less exuberant behavior.
If simply ignoring the behavior or taking away the positive reinforcement such as verbal praise or physical affection isn’t working, then try to redirect your dog. When they are licking excessively, offer them another activity that you would prefer. For example, if your dog greets you and your guests with lively kisses and slurps, then encourage your dog to engage in another behavior when they greet you. This could be waiting patiently in their bed, getting a treat, or picking up their favorite toy. Engaging in a behavior such as bringing a ball or toy has the added advantage that this occupies their mouth and is therefore incompatible with licking.
Can a Dog Licking Be a Sign of Something More Serious?
Dogs that excessively lick themselves, you, or an object may be displaying a self-stimulatory behavior. This may be a sign of anxiety, boredom, or even pain. Observe when your dog displays this behavior and try to notice any patterns. Is it when you are about to leave them alone, thus triggering separation anxiety? Does it happen more when you have guests around, therefore making your dog feel more anxious?
Dogs may excessively lick a part of their body due to pain, particularly if this is over a specific joint or area of their leg. Some dogs use it as a distraction technique if they are experiencing discomfort elsewhere. Obsessive licking of themselves may be a sign that your dog is itchy; they may be suffering from allergies or skin problems. If you are concerned your dog’s licking is excessive and not just a friendly greeting or sign of affection, it is best to seek veterinary advice.
Regardless of the cause of the licking, most pet parents respond to a big sloppy kiss with positive affection. Providing verbal attention by praising your dog, physical attention by embracing them with pats or cuddles, or even a food reward further reinforces the behavior. Our dogs are very attentive to our responses, and over time, all this positive feedback will encourage licking as a form of greeting. The bond we have with our pets is strengthened through interactions like play, grooming, and physical affection. An occasional doggy kiss reinforces this bond and helps us feel connected to our pet.