Some dogs seem to lick people more than others. Does this behavior mean something? Why do dogs lick? Is it ever a problem? The answers depend on you and your dog.
Why Dogs Lick People
Affection: There's a pretty good chance that your dog is licking you because it loves you. It's why many people call them "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 go for any available patch of skin, such as 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 it does not lick. It might have just learned things differently as a puppy or just not prefer licking.
While we don't know for certain why dogs lick, most experts agree that there is probably a combination of reasons. Licking is not considered a serious behavior problem unless it bothers you. Knowing the reason for your dog's licking might even change the way you feel about it.
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 it wants your attention. Even negative attention can encourage licking. When a dog is seeking attention, it will feel rewarded by any kind of attention, even the negative type. Pushing it away, saying "no," or even punishing it still means you're not ignoring it. This can encourage licking.
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, will lick the meat from around the mother's mouth. It is believed by some that this licking behavior has been passed down in the DNA, causing dogs to instinctively do it sometimes.
You Taste Good: Once that dog gets to licking you, it might realize you have an intriguing human taste that is a bit 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.
Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior: Although it's rare, dogs can suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, often brought on by prolonged stress and anxiety. Licking that occurs constantly (and usually involves the licking of objects, surfaces, and self in addition to humans) 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 veterinarian 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 as a tool in conjunction with training. Pharmaceutical treatment may even be used temporarily while your dog goes through training and behavior modification.
Is It Safe for Dogs to Lick You?
It's usually relatively harmless to let your dog lick you. However, don't believe the old myth that dogs' mouths are cleaner than humans' mouths. 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 harm unless it gets into an open wound. 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 it does it. Stop touching your dog or looking at it. Turn your head away. Get up and walk away if you need to. As soon as the licking stops, reward it with attention, affection, or even treats. In time, your dog will usually get the point, that licking is undesired behavior.
If you want the occasional gentle kiss from your dog, you can train your dog by attaching a word or phrase such as "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 if the licking it gets out of hand. If you need help with this and other training, consider hiring a dog trainer.
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