Why Do Dogs Like to Lick People?

The Reasons Behind Dog Kisses

dog licking girl's face
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Have you ever wondered why dogs lick you? Most dogs love to lick people. It's so common that we dog owners usually call it "giving kisses." Some dogs seem to do it more than others. Does this behavior really mean something? Why do dogs lick? Is it ever a problem? The answers might depend on you personally and your individual dog.

Why Dogs Lick People

While we don't know for certain why dogs lick, most experts agree that there is likely a combination of reasons. Generally, licking is not considered a serious behavior problem unless it really bothers you. Knowing the reason for your dog's licking might even change the way you feel about it. 

Affection: There's a pretty good chance that your dog is licking you because he loves you! There's a good reason for calling licks "kisses." Dogs show affection by licking people and sometimes even other dogs. Licking is a natural action for dogs. They learned it from the grooming and affection given to them as puppies by their mothers. Dogs might lick your face if they can get to it. If not, they might just dog for any available patch of skin, like hands, arms, legs, and feet. Some dogs tend to lick less than others. This does not necessarily mean that a dog is less affectionate if he does not lick. He might have just learned things differently as a puppy or just not prefer licking.

Attention-Seeking: Licking behavior that starts as affection often gets reinforced by a person's reaction: laughing, smiling, petting, etc. Maybe your dog is bored or lonely. There you are and he wants your attention. Even negative attention can encourage licking. When a dog seeks attention, he will generally be reinforced by any kind of attention, even the negative type. Pushing him away, saying "no" or even punishing him still means you're not ignoring him.

You Taste Good: One that dog gets to licking you, he might realize you have an intriguing human taste that is slightly salty. Dogs love anything that has an interesting taste! Plus, licking is a way for your dog to explore his world. You're part of that world after all.

Instinct: When wolves (and sometimes dogs in the wild) return to their pups after a meal, they regurgitate meat from the hunt. The pups, too young to hunt on their own, lick the meat from around their mouths. It is believed by some that this licking behavior has been passed down in the DNA, causing dogs to instinctively do it sometimes.  

Is It Safe for Dogs to Lick You?

It's usually harmless to let your dog lick you. However, don't believe the old myth that dogs' mouths are cleaner than humans' mouths. They most definitely are not! Dogs' mouths contain a lot of natural bacteria, which is part of the reason dog bites are so dangerous. However, this bacteria probably won't cause you harm unless it gets into an open wound. There are no documented cases of illnesses that started with a dog licking a human. But hey, you might just think it's gross. And that's okay.

How to Get Your Dog to Stop Licking You

You might think dog kisses are disgusting. Or, you might just feel like enough is enough. Getting your dog to stop licking you (and others) is usually a matter of denying attention when he does it. Stop touching your dog or looking at him. Turn your head away. Get up and walk away if you need to. As soon as the licking stops, reward him with attention, affection, or even treats. In time, your dog will usually get the point: licking is an undesired behavior.

If you want the occasional gentle kiss from your dog, you can actually train your dog by attaching a word or phrase like "kiss" or "gimme sugar" to the behavior. Reward the gentle kiss, say on the cheek or chin (or maybe just your hand depending on your preferences). Then deny attention when it gets out of hand. If you need help with this and other training, consider hiring a dog trainer.

Although it's rare, dogs can actually suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, often brought on by prolonged stress and anxiety. If licking occurs constantly (and usually involves the licking of objects, surfaces, and self in addition to humans), then it may be a real problem. Talk to your veterinarian about your concerns about your dog. Your vet might refer you to an animal behaviorist for help. Your vet or a veterinary behaviorist may also prescribe medication to help relieve anxiety. Though you may think medication should be a last resort, it's important to understand that animals cannot learn while in a high state of anxiety. Medication may be used s a tool in conjunction with training.