If your dog licks you a lot then you’ll know what it’s like to be slobbered on the face, hands and around the mouth, whether you’re stroking them, feeding them or being greeted as you step through the door. Being licked by your dog can be a sign of affection, but it can have a number of other meanings too. So why do dogs lick and what can you do if it ever becomes a problem?
Why does my dog lick me so much?
Licking is a natural and instinctive behaviour to dogs. For them it’s a way of grooming, bonding, and expressing themselves. Your dog may lick you to say they love you, to get your attention, to help soothe themselves if they’re stressed, to show empathy or because you taste good to them! Excessive licking can sometimes be a sign that your dog is anxious, uncomfortable or in pain. If you’re concerned about your dog always speak to a vet or behaviourist for advice.
Dogs have an instinct to lick
Licking is an important part of being a dog. It’s how they groom, show emotion and communicate. Mothers will often lick their puppies to keep them clean, give them comfort and encourage them to go to the toilet. Puppies will groom themselves and their family and, aside from being a good way to clean, it's also a sign of love, affection and a great way to bond.
Why do dogs lick?
When you say hello to a dog what’s the first thing you do? Chances are you stroke them. Our need to use our hands and touch their fur comes naturally to us and is a form of grooming. Dogs groom with their tongues, and so licking is their way of greeting, bonding and showing affection. We explore the world with our hands, while dogs use their mouths and tongues to help them understand their environment, and to assess the mood of others. Whether that’s licking your face to greet you and assess your mood, carrying things between their teeth, or playing with toys or balls.
They’re showing affection
Dogs often show affection by licking. It’s an instinctive behaviour that’s linked to the comfort they felt when their mother licked them as a puppy. Licking plays an important part of how they bond with others, causing them to release dopamine and endorphins that help make them feel relaxed, calm and happy. Just as it feels nice for us to stroke a dog, it probably feels nice for dogs to lick the ones they love.
They’re showing empathy
For dogs, licking is a comforting behaviour. If your dog is concerned about you, they may try and lick you to make you feel better and care for you. In a 2012 study, researchers asked owners to pretend to cry and found that their dogs were more likely to lick and nuzzle them than when their owners were just humming or talking. It’s possible that these dogs were just displaying a learnt behaviour, but many of us would argue that dogs can, to some extent at least, share and understand our feelings.
To get attention
Licking is a great way of getting your attention. If your dog licks you, you probably stroke them, talk to them kindly, pet them or make a fuss over them. This, in turn, encourages them to lick you and makes them more likely to do it next time.
We taste good
Have you ever noticed that your dog licks you more after exercise? Particularly on bare areas that have been really sweaty? When we sweat we release salt and acidic chemicals that may taste delicious to our dogs. Your dog may also lick your face and hands, smelling minuscule remnants of something you’ve eaten or nice smelling moisturising creams or lotions. Certain medications and lotions, such as psoriasis creams, can be very poisonous to dogs, so never let your dog lick you after you’ve used these.
How good is a dog’s sense of taste?
A dog’s sense of smell is renowned for being exceptional, but how does their sense of taste compare to ours? Surprisingly, we have 5 times more taste buds than a dog, so at first glance it seems like our sense of taste is better. Like us, dogs can taste things that are sweet, sour, salty and bitter, but they’re unable to taste a type of savoury flavour that we can detect, known as umami. Although dogs are unable to taste umami, they can taste water, something we’re not capable of. When we eat, our sense of smell is responsible for around 80% of what we taste, so it’s likely that a dog’s sensational sense of smell makes up for their lack of taste buds.
In the wild, young dogs may lick their mother’s lips when they return from a hunt to show that they’re hungry. This instinct is hardwired into your dog’s behaviour and they may lick you to let you know they’re feeling peckish.
When is licking a problem?
Licking is a way for dogs to express themselves and is a natural part of being a dog. Some dogs may lick lots, while others may do it less, but if your dog suddenly starts licking you a lot then it could be a sign that something is going on. Dogs may lick more frequently if they have increased anxiety or a health issue, such as an allergy, injury or arthritis. If you’re concerned about your dog or their behaviour then always contact your vet or a behaviourist.
For dogs, licking can be a soothing behaviour that helps them feel calm, relaxed and more at ease. If they’re feeling worried or stressed, particularly if they have separation anxiety, then licking you, or themselves, might help them feel less anxious.
Although rare, some dogs can develop a type of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). This can be linked to long-term stress or anxiety and can manifest as them constantly licking themselves, objects or other people. This can lead to sores on their tongues or bald patches in their fur. If you think your dog might be affected then they may be able to stop this behaviour if you interrupt them with an invitation to do something else – for example go for a walk, play in the garden or do some training. The behaviour should always be treated with kindness. It may be difficult to stop your dog, so always speak to your vet or a behaviourist if you’re concerned about your dog’s health or behaviour.
What can I do about problem licking?
Remember that licking is a perfectly natural behaviour and is a useful way for dogs to express themselves. Expecting your dog to stop licking you completely is similar to someone expecting you to never stroke your dog again – it’s never going to happen. However, not all dogs are the same and some may not lick often if at all. If you have a licker it’s important that you try to understand why your dog is licking you, as this may help you to help your dog to stop. If your dog’s licking becomes too much, then below are some suggestions to help you:
Move away - Instead of giving either positive or negative attention, try moving the part of your body that’s being licked away from your dog. Don’t say anything or make eye contact, but remain neutral. If this doesn’t work, try moving away from your dog, or leave the room entirely. Over time this should give them the message that it’s not something you enjoy
Distract them - Try giving them something else to do that stops them licking, such as a chew toy or a food puzzle
Training - Try training them to sit, or teach them to do something that redirects their licking and is rewarded by your affection and attention, such as giving you their paw or rolling over
Exercise - Keep your dog stimulated and give them plenty of exercise to help reduce any stress or burn up any excess energy that might be directed towards licking you
Stay clean - If licking is a particular problem after you’ve been exercising, take a shower
Positive attention - Give your dog lots of praise and attention when they’re doing what you want them to, rather than giving them negative attention when they’re not
Be consistent - Make sure you’re consistent. If you give your dog mixed messages then it will be confusing to them. Be consistent and clear about what you want them to do and what you don’t
Whether you should let your dog lick your face or not is an entirely personal decision, but be aware that your dog’s mouth is full of natural bacteria and their saliva may contain parasites. The chances of you becoming unwell from being licked on the face are probably very small, but you’ve seen your dog licking or eating things you wouldn’t normally, which begs the question, what are they putting in their mouths that you haven’t seen? If you do let your dog lick your face, make sure you wash it with soap and water afterwards to minimise any unpleasant contamination.
Why does my dog lick me in the morning?
Your dog may give you morning licks as a way of greeting you after you’ve both had a sleep. It could be that they’re happy to see you again after dreams of chasing rabbits, or because in the night we secrete sweat and oils in our sleep and may taste delicious to them.
Why does my dog lick me more than anyone else?
If your dog licks you more than anyone else then it probably means that you’re the person they love the most. You give the best strokes, the best tickles behind the ear, you’re their best friend and the giver of all tasty foods. Alternatively, and rather worryingly, it might be because you taste the best. Either way, take it as a compliment!
Why does my dog lick me when I stroke them?
When you stroke your dog, you’re telling them that you love and care for them. When they lick you back it’s just their way of letting you know that the feeling is mutual.
Why does my dog lick me after I’ve eaten?
A dog’s sense of smell is said to be between 10,000 and 100,000 times better than ours. Regardless of how tidy an eater you are, particles of food will remain around your lips, face and hands after you’ve finished a meal. Your dog will probably still be able to pick up on the smell of whatever you’ve eaten and, to them, it still smells delicious.
Why does my dog lick themselves so much?
If your dog has suddenly started licking themselves a lot then you should talk to your vet and get them checked out. Obsessive licking can be a sign that they are stressed or anxious, or could suggest that they are in pain, feeling nauseous, uncomfortable or itchy. Licking is soothing to dogs and may help to make them feel better. Dogs can sometimes lick themselves so much that they damage their skin. They may also lick or chew an area that is a little distance from the site of irritation, for example, dogs with anal sac issues may lick at their front legs or on its back because it’s as close as they can comfortably get.
If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!
We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information
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