Updated May 19, 2018
To understand the reasons why dogs lick humans, you have to first understand the central role licking plays in a dog’s life.
From the day they’re born, dogs start licking just about everything within reach as a way to explore their environment. They also lick their mother’s mouth to indicate hunger and lick their siblings as a submissive gesture. Mothers return the favor and lick their puppies to keep them clean and stimulate breathing, urination and defecation.
But adult dogs lick things – including people – for a variety of different reasons. We’ll explore some of the most common examples below.
Some of the most common reasons dogs lick humans and things in the environment are explained below.
Note that dogs may lick a given object for more than one reason, so it is important to analyze the situation carefully when trying to determine their motivation.
One of the most common reasons that dogs lick their owners is to show them affection. Furthermore, when dogs lick, they release endorphins that improve their mood and reduce stress.
When we sweat, we release salts from our pores, and when a dog licks us, it recognizes the taste of each individual. This helps the dog to identify us.
Another reason your dog may be licking your face or hands is that you may have recently eaten and the dog is tasting what you ate for breakfast or lunch.
Just as cats like to groom themselves, dogs also lick themselves in order to clean their bodies. They may do so anywhere, but their flanks, legs and genitals are the most common sites for such licking to occur.
Dog saliva produces enzymes that can kill bacteria, so dogs often lick wounds to get rid of dead skin tissue and clean and dirt present.
If your dog has had a recent surgical procedure, be careful, as the dog may reopen the wound through too much licking. Follow any advice given by your veterinarian.
Dogs also lick humans and other dogs to communicate. Your dog may be trying to tell you something like, “I need water or food” or “I would like to go outside and run around” or “I need a toilet break.”
It’s best to try and establish what your dog needs as an accident on the lounge carpet will not be a pleasant experience.
Just as children will try to get your attention, dogs will also vie for your attention. Barking, wagging tails and jumping on you all show that they need you to make them feel special, too. Show your dog some attention in return by giving him a favorite treat, patting him affectionately, or rubbing his belly.
As dogs instinctively have a pack mentality, licking of the dominant member is typical. Dogs will often lick people to show obedience and respect, letting us know that we are the leader of the pack. Licking of other members of the family or friends also shows the dog’s trust and affection.
Your dog may develop the habit of constant licking due to boredom. If the dog does not have enough stimulus from the environment and nothing to do, it may turn to compulsive licking to relieve stress.
Dogs have a heightened sense of smell and taste, and a dog will often lick objects in and around the house and yard as a form of recognition and identification.
If you encourage your dog to lick, it may become a habit the dog associates with you and will keep doing so because it believes you enjoy being licked.
If you notice that a dog continually licks a certain spot on the body, it may be a sign of allergies. In the case of constant licking of the anus, a trip to your local vet may be necessary to have the dog’s anal glands examined.
Constant licking of the paws may indicate something is stuck, so check the paws for thorns or cuts. If your dog has allergies as in a yeast infection, these tend to start in the ears and are often accompanied by a strong smell, so once again a trip to the vet is advisable.
Dogs can sometimes develop obsessive compulsive disorder caused by anxiety, which can be displayed through the constant licking of bed sheets. It may be advisable to get medical or behavioral assistance.
While your dog’s habit of licking you can be endearing (if a little slobbery), it isn’t the kind of behavior you want to encourage.
Your pet’s mouth is like a petri dish, and his saliva is usually contaminated with a variety of bacteria and other pathogens. You can even get sick from your dog’s licking habit.
A few of the most notable bacteria and diseases you can catch from his saliva include:
Some of these pathogens, such as Salmonella spp. and E. coli, are unlikely to cause serious illness unless the person licked is exceptionally old, young or immunocompromised.
To help avoid being infected by these pathogens, you’ll want to wash your hands (or anything else your dog has licked, such as your face) with soap and water as quickly as possible.
When the dog starts licking you and you do not want the dog to lick, stand up and leave the room each time to show that this behavior is not acceptable and that the dog will be ignored if the licking continues. Do not scold the dog.
Use distractions to discourage licking. Start playing with the dog using toys or an old sock for a bit of tug of war. Alternatively, take the dog outside for a romp in the garden.
It’s important to be consistent when discouraging your dog from excessive licking. Scolding the dog one day and then showing love and affection the other sends mixed signals and can be confusing. Your dog will not be able to understand your needs.
Exercising your dog can also be an effective aid for discouraging licking, as a run around the park or block tires out the dog and reduces the desire to lick you.
Another way you can discourage your dog from licking is to change the soaps or lotions you use on a daily basis. Because dogs have an acute sense of taste and smell, it may be licking you because the dog likes the smell and or taste of the products.
Try to use unscented soaps and lotions if possible or try citrus-scented products, as most dogs do not like the smell or taste of citrus.
You can also use behavioral training devices to help put an end to problematic licking behaviors (you should always allow your dog to carry out normal licking behaviors, but you'll want to stop him from licking your face or licking anything obsessively).
Pet Corrector is a great choice that doesn't cause your pet any harm. You simply press a button when your dog exhibits an undesirable behavior, and the can produces a loud hissing sound, which most dogs find unpleasant.
There are also a variety of deterrent sprays on the market to help alleviate excessive licking behaviors. You won't want to use these types of products to stop your dog from licking your skin, but it may help convince your dog to stop licking the floor, walls or other inanimate objects in the house.
Unfortunately, the efficacy of these products is not clear. Most have very poor user reviews and are unlikely to provide much value.
However, Grannick's Bitter Apple may be an exception. Bitter Apple has been around for years, and many owners sing its praises.
It is clearly the most effective deterrent on the market, and there's little downside in giving it a try.
Nevertheless, Bitter Apple is probably best used alongside behavioral remedies to give you the best chance of success.
Does your dog like to lick you every chance he gets? Have you figured out why he does so? Have you tried to put an end to the behavior? What kinds of techniques have you tried?
Let us know about your experiences -- especially any techniques that have proven helpful -- in the comments below.