Love it or hate it some dogs like to lick people. For a lot of dogs, the most popular places to lick are our hands and our faces. Why do they like to do this and what does this behavior mean?
Unlike us, dogs use their senses of touch, smell and taste to communicate. Since they can’t talk these other ways to communicate are very important. Licking your hands might be your dog’s way of saying hello. Sometimes your dog might give you a sniff or two before they start licking. By smelling and tasting your skin they are learning about you.
If you’ve recently been handling food or petting another puppy your dog will know when then sniff and lick you! Some dogs get very upset or jealous when they smell other dogs on their favorite humans! Another thing to be conscious of if a dog is licking you is makeup and lotions. Some dogs love the smell of face cream, lotion or lip gloss and might go to town. While these products are generally safe for us, be careful not to let your dog lick any products that could make them sick!
Four reasons why dogs lick
Mother dogs will lick their puppies to keep them clean. This behavior will continue throughout a dog’s life. Dogs might groom themselves or lick their rear ends after going to the bathroom. You can hope your dog chooses to lick your face before their rear instead of the other way around! One thing to watch out for is excessive licking. This could be an indicator of some potential health problems. For example, your dog's paws itch like crazy when he's having an allergic reaction, licking temporarily soothes this itch. If your pup can't stop licking his rump, it probably means that he's experiencing irritation or he's in need of having his anal glands expressed.
Dogs may lick you to communicate. While affectionate licking may be fairly calm, a dog may lick more frantically in other situations. If your dog is excited, nervous or anxious they might lick more frantically to communicate their feelings. Your dog's licking can seem a bit out of control sometimes, especially when you get home after a long day at work. At first, your pup is just licking you because he's genuinely happy to see you, but something else starts happening after that. All this excitement and happy licking triggers the release of a boatload of feel-good hormones throughout your dog's system. Licking literally gives your pup a natural high, which leads him to lick even more.
Watch their body language when they’re licking you. A wagging tail will come with frantic licking when your dog is very happy or excited. Maybe you just asked them if they’d like a w-a-l-k. If your dog is crying, tucking their tail, or showing other signs of distress, you’ll want to try to figure out what is making them stressed out and try to minimize or eliminate the stressor.
For some dogs with compulsive tendencies licking can also be an expression of compulsion. This is not just about your dog licking their hands. It could also be that they’re licking a spot on their bodies, a wall or piece of furniture or their empty dish. In this case, you may want to consult a veterinarian to rule out medical causes of compulsion. If the dog does get a clean bill of health at the vet a trainer or behavioral expert might be able to better help you modify your dog’s behavior and manage compulsions.
Licking is a sign of affection. Your dog might lick your hands and face because they love you! Licking might feel good to your dog as it can release endorphins. Some experts also say that in addition to affection, licking is a sign of submission. It might mean that your dog sees you as the head of the house or pack.
When dogs lick the mouth of a human or muzzle of another dog, it's usually an act of subordination. It's your pup's way of saying, "Hey, you're the top dog here." And maybe a little, "Got anything to eat?" This instinct seems to date back to dogs' early evolution, when pups in the wild relied on their mamas to share some of that fresh meat in her mouth.
- Skin issues or allergies
If your dog is licking his skin compulsively and/or itching it might be a sign of skin issues or allergies. You’ll want to get them to the vet for an exam to determine what is going on. Hopefully, it is as simple as some lotion or soothing baths. Other allergy treatment may involve medication or diet changes. Choosing a fresh food diet like Ollie's for your dog that is formulated with nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids can helo alleviate and prevent common skin issues.
Working with a vet to manage your dog's skin or allergies should stop the licking. For some dogs, after a while, it becomes a habit and might be more compulsive. Once you’ve got the medical issues under control, you can now tackle any compulsion or behavioral reasons.
Should you encourage your dog to lick your hands?
Yes! If you don’t mind a little slobber it is totally okay to let your dog lick your hands. You should not punish your dog for licking you. If you punish your dog for licking it is similar to pushing away a partner or child who wants to give you a hug or kiss. That isn’t the message you want to send to your dog! As we mentioned, licking is an important method of communication too, so if you push away your pup when they are licking you might be shutting down their communication with you.
That said, not everyone likes to be covered in slobber at all times.
What to do if you need your dog to stop licking?
If you want to keep your dog from licking you or your guests, you can train them to do something else. You can teach the command off or show your dog another greeting like touch. (The dog would touch his nose to your hand). High five, shake or paw is also a good one to use to distract a dog who wants to lick.
There may be situations where you need your dog not to lick someone. Therapy dogs are a great example. When visiting sick patients in the hospital you don’t want them licking (especially not excessively). While doggie kisses are generally safe for healthy folks, saliva does contain bacteria which can be risky for folks who already have compromised immune systems or are recovering from surgery.
Finally, you can’t allow your dog to lick some people and not others. If you need your dog to not lick you need to be consistent with the ‘rule’. Similar to other rules for your dog like not jumping or not going on the furniture -- no licking can’t be a sometimes thing. It then becomes hard to enforce and you run the risk of confusing your dog.
The Ollie blog is devoted to helping pet parents lead healthier lives with their pups. If you want to learn more about our fresh, human-grade food, check out MyOllie.com.