Why do dogs lick?
Licking is a very common dog behaviour and it could mean a lot of things. It could be your dog showing you some affection or it could be a sign of a health problem. It's important to understand why your dog licks you and what signs should you look for.
Licking is part of "doggy" culture. It keeps them clean and healthy - dogs’ saliva contains agents that can kill germs and heal wounds. Mothers will lick their puppies’ genitals to stimulate urination and defecation. They will also lick their puppies simply to clean them, thus eliminating any lingering scent that could attract predators. It can also be a way to explore their environment and investigate texture and taste or scent.
Licking can be a sign that a dog is getting ready for some food, possibly because they also start salivating in readiness. Older puppies lick their mothers’ lips in the hope that they'll get some food, and this behaviour induces canids to regurgitate food for their puppies.
Licking also has important social functions, since a dog that is showing signs of agitation (sometimes anxiety but also happy excitement) will rapidly lick their lips and nose. It may not be intended to show that the dog is feeling this way, but certainly when studying dog body language, it is a sign that perhaps the dog needs a bit of time, distance and patience as they are a little worked up. See if your dog is doing this at times, and make a note of what was happening to cause it. You won’t think they already do it, but they do!
What does it mean when a dog licks you?
Most of you might think that when a dog licks you it's they way of giving you a kiss. This can be true, but it can mean more than that.
To express attachment and to connect with you
For a domestic dog, licking their human can often be a way of showing affection. It also cements the bond between you and your dog. When a dog licks someone they like, their brain releases feel-good chemicals. That person then becomes associated with a positive emotion, and vice versa.
Alternatively, your dog may be licking you to find out more about how you're feeling. Human sweat contains certain hormones that can reveal our emotional state. If we're scared or nervous, our sweat will contain pheromones that are not present when we are calm. A dog can’t quite taste them, but they can sense them with something called the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ.
To say hello
Licking can also be a form of greeting for dogs. It's their way of saying: "Hello, welcome back, I've missed you!" It's the doggy equivalent of a handshake, or even a hug!
...you just taste good!
Sometimes they just like the way we taste! If we have just handled food, we may still have the smell of it on our skin. If you're sweaty after a workout, your dog will love your salty flavour! However, a dog’s sense of smell is so sensitive, they will be invesitgating a lot of other information too. Some dogs just love to lick. It’s their way to explore their environment further.
Why do dogs lick your face?
Dogs are exceptional at reading our facial expressions, so it makes sense that they will explore our faces with licking too. It can be a means to show affection, or to see where you’ve been, or to simply just make contact with the most expressive part of our human body.
Why does my dog keep licking me? And is it unhygienic?
Is excessive licking a real problem? You should always wash your hands after a dog has licked them, and many experts recommend against letting a dog lick your face.
Firstly, you don't know where their mouth has been. Dogs scavenge and eat all sorts of things on walks, including other animal faeces. Dogs use licking to clean themselves, and use their mouths to wash their private parts. Do you really want that tongue on your face? Or even on your lips?
Most of the bacteria in your dog's mouth is pretty harmless. In fact, when dog saliva comes into contact with intact human skin, especially that of a healthy person, it's unlikely to cause any health issues.
However, dogs can pick up nasties from sniffing animal waste or drinking contaminated water. They could catch salmonella, pasteurella, and leptospira. Additionally, your dog's stomach contains various kinds of bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. These can all be passed onto humans, and all of them can be very unpleasant.
Parasites are another risk. If your dog licks your face, they could transmit things like ringworm. Zoonotic diseases are usually treatable, but it's best to avoid them completely.
How do I get my dog to stop licking me?
You can modify your dog's behaviour with some reward based training. The next time your dog tries to lick you, move away from them and give them something else to lick, such as a food-containing chew toy. Licking is not a bad habit in itself, it can be very healthy, but the target of the licking needs to ideally not be you!
If your dog is licking everything in sight, including you, then there might be a problem. The first thing you should do is take them to a vet, as obsessive licking can be a sign of gastrointestinal issues, such as gastritis, or they may have something stuck in their mouth or throat.
They may also be suffering from stress or anxiety. If that's the case, you'll notice other symptoms such as avoidance, hiding, or defensive behaviour, or even a dog that is very clingy. Speak to a vet for more advice, and be aware you may need to consult a professional animal behaviourist to help you with this problem.
Is it ok if your dog licks you?
In the majority of cases, licking is completely harmless. In fact, it's normally a good sign! It means that your dog likes you, and it's a really effective way of building up the natural bond between humans and their canine friends. However, as much as we love them, our dogs can still be a bit gross sometimes. So always wash your hands, and remember, it's best to avoid any doggy kisses on the lips!