To understand the reasons why dogs lick people, you have to first understand the central role that 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. In order to know whether your dog’s licking is normal or a potential problem, you must first understand the variety of reasons that they lick in the first place.
Why Do Dogs Lick People (and Other Things)?
Some of the most common reasons dogs lick humans and things in the environment are explained below. The reasons are numerous, and it can be helpful to understand the differences.
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. Dogs don’t speak our language, so the best way to understand what they are trying to tell you is to understand their behavior.
12 Reasons for Dog Licking
Dogs are known for their love of licking, but the reasons for this behavior can vary widely. We have curated the list of 12 possible explanations for why dogs lick, from affection to anxiety to medical issues.
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. So, most of the time, your dog is only licking you because they are happy. However, there are other reasons that we will explore as well.
2. Exploratory Tasting
When we sweat, we release salts from our sweat glands, and when a dog licks us, it recognizes the taste of each individual. This helps the dog to identify us. Dogs have very keen taste buds, and by tasting people’s sweat, they might be able to tell who we are.
Another reason that dogs lick faces or hands is that you may have recently eaten and the dog is tasting what you ate for breakfast or lunch. Of course, it is no secret that your dog will eat any chance they can get, and they might just be trying to sneak a taste.
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. A dog licking themselves for grooming purposes is quite common.
4. Cleaning and Tending to Wounds
Dog saliva produces enzymes that can kill bacteria, so dogs often lick wounds to get rid of dead skin tissue and clean any 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 people 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.” Similar to how a puppy communicates with its mother through licking, your dog might be trying to tell you something that it needs.
It’s best to try and establish what your dog needs and how they generally try to tell you. After all, an accident on the lounge carpet will not be a pleasant experience.
6. To Get Your Attention
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.
7. Indicating Submission
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. This is learned behavior that comes from thousands of years of evolution, and it is always a good sign when your dog sees you as leader of the pack.
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. This, along with many other reasons, is why it is so important to keep your dog busy and active.
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. You would be surprised what a dog can identify simply from its taste or scent.
If you encourage your dog to lick, it may become a habit that the dog associates with you, and will keep doing so because it believes you enjoy being licked.Monitoring this kind of behavior is why it is so important to train your dog well when they are young. If you don’t want them licking, ensure that it doesn’t become a habit of theirs.
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 that something is stuck, so check the paws for thorns or cuts. If your dog has allergies such as 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.
If your dog is licking and you believe it is because they are uncomfortable in a certain way, be sure to take them to a vet that can properly identify the problem. Better safe than sorry!
12. Behavioral Issues
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, perhaps from a veterinary behaviorist.
Just Because It’s Cute Doesn’t Mean It’s Harmless
While your dog’s habit of licking you can be endearing (if a little slobbery), it isn’t the kind of behavior you necessarily 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:
- Campylobacter jejuni
- Brucella canis
- Salmonella spp.
- Escherichia coli
- Toxoplasma gondii
- Bartonella henselae
- Leptospira interrogans
- Capnocytophaga canimorsus
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. However, it often isn’t a risk you want to take, and it is better to just ensure that your dog knows its limits when it comes to licking.
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.
Putting an End to Excessive Licking
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. A dog will often lick if it is seeking attention, so will likely learn to stop if it realizes that this behavior is having an adverse effect.
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. A busy dog will become preoccupied with other things than licking. Additionally, this will help to settle your dog’s anxiety levels, which can also prevent licking.
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. Therefore, to correct and change dog behavior, your reactions have to be consistent and firm, otherwise, your dog will not learn to identify any patterns.
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. A tired dog won’t have the energy to play and lick constantly.
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.
Behavioral Training Devices
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. This spray doesn’t taste good, which is why it can be so effective to stop your dog from licking.
Nevertheless, Bitter Apple is probably best used alongside behavioral remedies to give you the best chance of success.
This article has given you a summation of the various reasons your dog might be licking, as well as a number of ways to prevent or curtail this behavior if you need to. A good dog trainer will notice and adapt based on their dog’s needs.
However, as with all dog-related issues, it’s going to depend heavily on your dog. It’s important to find out why your dog is licking in the first place. Some reasons are very healthy, and some are not. So pay attention to your dog, evaluate their needs, and seek assistance from a veterinary professional if necessary.
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.
A big-dog lover, successful marketing executive, and website developer, Brian founded Canine Weekly in 2016. Brian lives just outside of Seattle with his wife and child. Brian grew up with labs and the family is eager to get another Labrador once their newborn is a little older. Brian is the former owner of Canine Weekly.