Why Do Dogs Lick? Canine Behaviour Explained
As dog trainers, we love to understand what makes our beloved canines tick. As emotional creatures, dog licks or “kisses” are an interesting case. The friendly slurp of your hand or face seems like a special sign that your dog truly loves you.
Is that really true? Why do dogs lick you? Does it mean something different if they lick your hand or your face or your foot? Let’s discuss.
Why Do Dogs Lick?
1. The scientific reason
Let’s start with the instinctual reason your dog is licking you. It all stems from the wolf ancestry.
“The common dog face licking behaviour has evolved from the wolf puppy behaviour of licking the mouths of adult dogs to prompt the regurgitation of partially digested food.” - Wailani Sung, PetMD. (1)
This is how young puppies transition from the mother’s teat to eating solids. Bit gross but birds and other animals also exhibit this behaviour.
In fact, there’s a theory that regurgitating into each other’s mouths is the true origins of human kissing! (2) Wild, I know.
So it could be a way of soliciting food. Younger dogs are more likely to lick your face for this reason.
2. You might taste good
Moving away from faces and onto your hands. Have you just eaten some cheesy Doritos?
If you want to lick your fingers, there’s a chance that your dog does too!
In a slightly less understandable way, you specifically may taste nice at that moment. No, I am not suggesting your dog wants to eat you. But if you have just come back from a run around the neighbourhood and your palms are sweaty, the saltiness may be appealing enough for a quick slurp.
3. They are showing affection
Over millennia, we have bred dogs to be more and more affectionate with humans, so it stands to reason that our canine pets have many ways of showing their love to us. They can’t communicate, so they have learned several signals of affection.
Licking is one of the clearest ones to our monkey brains.
“Some wild species in the dog family will lick pack members just to welcome them home. So, those daily slobbers really might just be a sign that your dog is happy to see you.” - Mary Robins, American Kennel Club. (3)
Mothers lick their puppies to groom them and show affection, so it is a mimicked behaviour that they are imprinting onto you.
Because we tend to interpret licking as affection, we also encourage it to a degree. Your laughing and release of endorphins when your dog licks you is duly noted by your dog. They then repeat the behaviour because they know you appreciate it. It’s a constant feedback loop.
4. They want your attention
This is another side of the feedback loop.
When your dog licks you, whether you like it or not, you likely say something to them, don’t you?
Rarely does your dog lick your hand suddenly and you don’t acknowledge them at all. Licking you is a very quick way of getting your attention.
I know with my dog, this is her favourite attention-seeking behaviour. The routine is always the same. She wanders over and sits at my feet and licks whatever bare skin is available to her as a friendly notification that she is there, ready for petting. If the lick has not worked, she progresses to nudging and then a full beleaguered sigh as she rests her heavy head on my lap or laptop.
Now if you intend to try and train your dog to not lick you, this is the hardest part to solve. You always have some sort of reaction when your dog licks you and that’s what they want. They seek attention. You give attention. The pattern continues.
If you can become a Jedi master at ignoring your dog if they lick you, it may eventually subside.
5. They have OCD
Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviours are not isolated to humans. Many animals exhibit them, particularly in moments of high stress.
Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CCDS), otherwise known as canine dementia, can also cause repetitive behaviours like obsessive licking.
If your dog has an obsession with licking, it is rarely just you that they will lick. They will lick walls, floors, furniture, clothes, themselves, everyone and everything in cycles. It’ll be like a constant tick that they are unable to snap out of easily.
Do not try to train your dog out of excessive licking. It’s unlikely to work since it is a compulsion, rather than a bad habit. If you are concerned about any repetitive, excessive licking, please consult your vet. A dog behaviourist also may be able to help you.
It is likely triggered by anxiety or old age so it’s best to figure out the root cause of the problem with some professional help.
Is It Safe For Your Dog To Lick You?
So, your dog tends to lick the baby food off of your toddler’s messy face.
Is that safe? Should you be concerned?
There’s an old wive’s tale that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than human mouths. This is entirely false. Dogs have many harmful bacteria in their mouths and saliva. This is why dog bites can be so dangerous to us. (4)
That said, these harmful bacteria can only really cause damage if it enters an open sore or wound. Your skin is a very effective barrier against any nasty microbes that may want to harm you. Therefore, the risk of getting sick from your dog licking you is minuscule.
The Lowdown On Dog Kisses
Your dog is an emotional being that uses its licks to expert effect. Whether to grab your attention or show you some love, this ultimate natural and instinctual behaviour continues to charm us as owners.
We hope this article helped you understand the psyche of your loveable pup and appreciate those random slurps a little more than before.
As discussed in this article, licking is a very natural behaviour. It varies from dog to dog whether they lick a lot or not, but it is baked into their DNA in a sense.
If you want to stop your dog from licking you, you’ll need to break the two positive feedback loops that we discussed:
If your dog is licking you as a sign of affection, you can redirect them to behaviours that suit you better. Take your hand away instantly when your dog licks it, to show that this is not the way to show you love.
This is the hardest as it takes some dedication. If your dog is licking you for attention, you have to ignore them when they do it. Rewarding them with attention will just strengthen the feedback loop even further.
A dog behaviourist can help you further if the problem persists.
- Sung, W. December 04, 2018. “Why Do Dogs Lick Your Face, and Is It a Problem?”. PetMD. Retrieved April 8, 2021. https://www.petmd.com/news/view/why-do-dogs-lick-your-face-and-it-problem-37799
- Pollard, A. April 9, 2020. “Why Do Humans Kiss Each Other? Here's The Science Of Kissing”. MindBodyGreen. Retrieved April 8, 2021. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/why-humans-kiss-science
- Robins, M. October 21, 2019. “Why Is My Dog Licking Me?”. American Kennel Club. Retrieved April 8, 2021. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/advice/why-is-my-dog-licking-me/
- Stregowski, J. March 1, 2021. “Why Do Dogs Like to Lick People? The Reasons Behind Dog Kisses”. The Spruce Pets. Retrieved April 8, 2021. https://www.thesprucepets.com/why-do-dogs-lick-people-1118300