Does your dog lick you? Is it something you have encouraged or taught him to do, or did he just kind-of insist on doing it, uninvited? This is one of those subjects where there will be many opinions. In fact, many experts contradict one another on the subject of licking. Why do dogs lick you? What do dog kisses mean? Are doggie kisses a show of affection as we imagine them to be, or are they just really licking for taste? What is the motive behind this behavior? For answers to these questions, we turned to Holiday Barn Pet Resort’s Professional Dog Trainer, Dickie Martinson.
“In my professional experience, I have seen dogs lick for many different reasons,” says Dickie. “I think to understand why they’re licking, you have to look at the situation and the body language of the dog.”
Dickie has given us 6 reasons for why a dog may lick. Let’s take a look at the different reasons and examine the possible motives behind each.
• Catching our essence
You may observe one dog licking the ears of another and wonder, “Why do dogs lick ears?”. Look at the body positioning of both dogs. “Dog 1” may have their ears pinned back and is lowering their body. “Dog 2” is more rigid in movement and appears to be trying to get above the shoulders of the Dog 1. Dog 2 is trying to assert itself by moving over and above Dog 1’s body and into a mounting position. In this situation, Dog 2 is showing dominance.
A dog can attempt to show dominance towards a human by licking too. This is a more determined, deliberate act. It’s uninvited and inappropriate for the situation. When licks are unsolicited and demanding, it can indicate an assertion of dominance and control. So, what does it mean when a dog licks your face? Dogs who make eye contact and lick directly in their owner’s face are being disrespectful, attempting to gain the advantage in the pack hierarchy.
My dog, an older rescue, will not lick my face or make close eye contact. He may quickly lick my leg, my arm, my hand (only once, not repeatedly), but I’ll put my face down towards him and he will turn away. Even when I say, “Gimme a kiss”, he turns away. Apparently, he was not encouraged to kiss when he was a pup. And respectfully, he refuses to do it as an adult. Personal space is a big deal in dog language and the closer to the eyes the more sensitive it becomes. A dog that will not lick your face is respecting your position as pack leader. It’s not because he doesn’t love you!
Soothing, comforting licking is seen most often with litter mates and by mother dogs with their puppies. Notice how a mother dog licks the puppy and the puppy licks back in the mouth area. This is a way mothers let their puppies know they are safe and secure. Puppies need assurance and approval from their mom, their “pack leader”. And the puppies are showing submission and respect to their mothers.
If your dog is constantly jumping on you and attempting to lick your face, it’s could be because they want acceptance and approval. They need to be comforted. However sweet that sounds, it’s not proper behavior. Dickie recommends petting under the chin and on the lips as this will help to raise the dog’s head and build its confidence.
Licking also releases endorphins in the brain. It can be very calming for some dogs. My dog has had allergies for years. Once we got the allergies and itching under control, we saw a huge improvement in his licking. But he never stopped his nighttime licking. Right after going to bed at night, my dog has a ritual of licking his feet for a few minutes. Thanks to Dickie’s insight, I believe that Rex is calming and soothing himself before going to sleep.
Grooming is another reason for a dog to lick. If a dog’s skin is dirty, irritated, or if there is a wound, a dog will want to lick it constantly. It’s the dog’s way of cleaning and healing itself. We should stop a dog from licking wounds. The wounds won’t dry and heal properly if they don’t leave it alone.
If two dogs are friends, they may groom each other, licking each other’s faces in a pure showing of trust towards one another. Or it could be that one dog has a wound of some sort and his “pal” is just trying to lick it. Just a dog, being a dog!
Negative stress isn’t always the reason for licking. Dickie has a 13-year-old Aussie named Kemper that has been a licker his whole life. Dickie says, “When he is excited and happy, he licks. He licks hands, legs the floor, the air, and so on.” Many other people have seen this type of behavior in their dog. Dickie’s advice is to keep these dogs properly exercised and mentally stimulated, as he does with Kemper. This helps to keep the dog’s mind too busy for licking.
Licking can also be a coping mechanism to handle the stress or frustration a dog is feeling. Dickie uses the example of someone who bites their nails. If you try to correct the behavior, the stress from being corrected can cause the dog to lick more. Again, proper exercise and mental stimulation can help decrease the licking.
Obsessive, Compulsive Disorder
Some doctors have diagnosed dogs with OCD licking. With continual, OCD, licking there is a health risk to the coat and skin. You’ll see many dogs with red-ish paws. The enzymes in the dog’s saliva often turns the fur red. If licking continues, the dog can actually lick off its fur in a particular area, causing hot spots/infections, and granulomas, both of which are very painful.
Capturing our essence
As gross as it can seem to us, dogs like the way our shedding skin cells smell! They love the odor of their pack leader and try to capture that scent by licking us… especially when we’re wet or sweaty! We taste good to them. Having our odor overload their olfactory organs gives them a secure feeling.
Dogs are trying to communicate something to us by licking, and, yes, it can be affection. Our job is to figure out what our dogs are trying to communicate to us by their licking. Next time you wonder, “Why does my dog lick me?” considering the following possibilities. If your dog happily welcomes you home each evening with a quick lick, that’s definitely a greeting! If he appears anxious and nervously licks the back of your leg, find out why. If your dog gently – and wiggly – approaches you during a relaxing evening and offers a soft lick, it is most certainly affection. If he vigorously licks you whenever you are near, that could be dominance. Dickie allows his dogs to lick him on his terms. If it’s cuddle time or they’re just relaxing with each other, an occasional lick is sweet and well received. Dickie’s advice is “Learn your dog’s body language and look for the reason they are licking. Teach them to communicate in a respectful manner.”
With leadership comes respect. If your dog respects you, he will avoid licking your face. I feel better knowing that my little guy is just being respectful when he refuses to lick my face. AND, I’m sure not going to ask him to anymore!
Do you need help correcting unwelcomed doggie kisses, or perhaps even just tone it back a little? Our Professional Dog Trainers can help you with that. Please contact Dickie or Melaina at our Southside location: 794-5400; or Schylar or Mckenzie at our Glen Allen location: 672-2200.