Few behaviors are more linked with dogs than their urge to lick the faces of those they love. Dog lovers tend to equate these sloppy gestures with kisses, as the gesture is inherently affectionate.
You may not give it a second thought, but it is a somewhat curious behavior.
What is the canine motivation behind dogs licking themselves, their owners, and other animals?
In truth, it’s a bit of a mystery. We don’t know what our furry pals think and why they act like they do.
Nevertheless, there are several logical possibilities. So, wipe the slobber off your face and consider the following theories about why dogs lick.
Licking helps with hygiene
Just like cats, dogs employ their tongues to help with basic hygiene.
While pooches might occasionally roll in poop or scrounge in the trash, they lick themselves to get clean.
You’ll likely witness your dog employing its tongue to remove debris from its feet and other dirt-prone areas.
Note that this “tongue bath” shouldn’t replace the need for a real bath, which owners should facilitate every month or so.
If your dog is injured, it may lick an infected or wounded area. This is a common reaction when they are in pain.
Dog (and cat) saliva contains special enzymes with specific healing properties.
When dogs lick their fur, their saliva helps break down dead tissue and can even contribute to treating infections.
Licking has some benefits but cannot replace medical treatment for an injury. Inspect your dog for possible wounds. If necessary, schedule an appointment with your vet.
Licking builds companionship
Are dog licks really kisses? In a way, yes.
Mothers lick their young to clean and comfort them when dogs are small puppies. This behavior is especially noticeable with newborn puppies.
The mother’s licking stimulates blood flow in her pups and stimulates muscles that stimulate the puppies’ urge to urinate.
Dogs tend to retain the licking behavior as a natural way of showing affection.
Many members of the animal kingdom use licking as a sign of affection, including giraffes, deer, and cats.
Licking, like kissing, releases dopamine, which makes animals feel more relaxed and strengthens their bonds with others.
Licking gets your attention
A sloppy dog kiss is an excellent way to get your attention.
When your dog licks your face or body, you likely respond by giving your dog the pets and love it craves.
Thus, your positive response motivates your dog to continue the habit.
Try to avoid negative responses like shoving your dog away or scolding.
A negative reaction is still a reaction and likely won’t discourage your dog.
Dogs can’t always clearly communicate their needs with us, so don’t get frustrated. Instead, try to understand why your dog wants your attention.
Licking shows submission
Licking is a signal of submission.
Dogs are instinctively driven to be part of a pack.
So, they often demonstrate dominant or submissive behaviors to maintain the hierarchy.
Licking is a puppy-like, playful indication your dog respects your authority.
Submissive licking often presents as your dog licking your feet or hands. It’s by no means a negative signal.
Instead, it demonstrates that your dog is content with the social order at home.
Licking lets dogs taste you
That’s right — licking allows dogs to taste you. Maybe you ate a particularly fragrant burrito for lunch, and your pup can smell it on your breath.
Perhaps you’ve had a good cry, so your dog is slurping up those salty tears.
Your dog is not trying to eat you, but it’s perfectly possible it likes how you taste.
Moreover, young puppies lick their mothers to signal their hunger, so your pup may be looking for a snack.
Is it safe to let dogs lick your face?
For the most part, licking is a safe and typical behavior for dogs.
However, it would be best not to overindulge the sloppy dog kisses. Dog saliva carries bacteria that can be harmful to humans.
So, if your dog licks your hands, wash them before you touch food or your face.
Try to divert your dog from directly licking your more sensitive and open areas, like your nose, mouth, and eyes.
Medical concerns aside, your dog spends most of the day sticking its nose and mouth into nasty things (like poop, trash, and other germ-packed discoveries).
Do yourself a favor, and limit how much your dog licks you.
When is licking a concern?
Excessive licking can be a cause for concern.
If your dog continuously licks a specific part of its body, it could be a sign of infection or discomfort. Unrestricted licking can negatively affect fur and skin and aggravate wounds.
For this reason, dogs recovering from a medical intervention often wear cones around their heads while their bodies heal.
Be sure to plan a trip to the veterinarian to determine if your dog is experiencing any allergies, illness, or other forms of distress.
Constant licking can also be a sign of anxiety and stress.
As mentioned, mothers lick their puppies to help soothe them and demonstrate affection. If your dog excessively licks itself or your family members, it could be a sign of stress.
Consider if your pup is getting enough exercise and attention, and call your vet to ensure everything checks out if you are uncertain.
How to discourage licking behavior
Licking is normal, whatever your dog’s motivation, so don’t respond negatively.
Instead, if you have an enthusiastic licker at home, try to integrate strategies to distract your dog.
For example, move away from your dog without offering it any attention.
Provide your canine with a chew toy or bone to help satiate its urge to lick.
Keep your hands and face super clean to avoid tempting smells or bits of food your dog might want to taste. Build in extra playtime or exercise to tire an active pup out.
Whatever intervention you choose, be consistent. Your dog will get confused if you sometimes indulge in the licking and other times move away.
Remember to be patient; dogs learn from birth that licking is normal and an effective communication method, so training your sweet puppy out of that behavior takes time and practice.