Why Do Dogs Lick You
Almost all dog lovers like getting dog licks. Unless your dog eats poop, Yuck!
But why does my dog lick me so much?
As a Certified Dog Behaviorist, in Los Angeles, I am well-suited to answer all questions about dog behavior.
In addition, the reason why dogs lick people, eat grass, and/or eat poop, all straddle dog behavior and animal nutrition since there are trace minerals and bacteria on people’s skin. Lucky for you, I am also a dog nutritionist. You’re in for a gross salty bacteria-filled rush, let’s get started.
Why Dogs Lick You
It is important that we don’t look at any one behavior in a vacuum. Why dogs lick you is no exception.
We must take into consideration the context, environment, and the entire ontogeny and health of the dog to paint an accurate picture.
Here are 12 reasons why dogs lick people:
- Displacement behavior – your dog is stressed, uncomfortable or has fear and anxiety around a stimulus in the environment.
- Learned/conditioned behavior – science shows that when you say “Ewww!” or “Yuck!” or laugh, smile or look at your dog when they lick you, your dog gets positive reinforcement for the immediately preceding behavior (licking). You just taught your dog to lick you more often, congratulations! Dog training 101
- Boredom – your dog lacks training and behavior modification practice. If your dog is bored they will self-soothe, and entertain themselves. Licking is as good behavior as any for your dog to practice when your working dog is unemployed. Put your dog to work for another more desirable behavior (differential reinforcement of an incompatible or other behavior)
- Self-reinforcing behavior – just like a dog barking and jumping, dog licking has an intrinsic good feeling for dogs. Hence they will continue to practice any behavior that feels good to them and that is self-reinforcing.
- You taste good, Yum! dogs may like the soaps, creams, lotions, perfumes, and products that are on our skin. They also like the salt and chemicals that are excreted from our pores–aka sweat and human body fluids taste good. Further, a dog might love your diet as the scent is excreted through your pores (think that curry or garlic dish you ate last night).
- Bonding with parents and family – what better way to connect with your loved ones than to get close to them and lick them. Communing, rubbing, cuddling, petting, and grooming, are all ways dogs communicate and show affection with conspecifics (dogs) and heterospecifics (you).
- Atavistic quality – carried over from their wolf ancestors., Although dogs are not pack animals, dog licking and (dogs licking people) is a behavior that is likely carried over from wolves. Wolves, wild canids, and domesticated dogs lick their young to stimulate their genitals to urinate and defecate, wake them up in the den and/or whelping box, clean off the placenta after birth, show affection, and groom puppies. Licking is also comforting to littermates and a show of affection and communication. Another atavistic behavior that might contribute to why a dog licks you so much (especially when a dog licks your face and mouth) is wild canids will lick the mother to regurgitate some of her food.
- Communication – dog behavior is all about communication. Licking is another way dogs communicate with one another to show they are nervous (tongue flicks) appeasement behaviors/signals (I come in peace, please don’t hurt me), to submissive behaviors.
- Gastrointestinal issues – Certain types of dog licking are linked to GI issues. For example when a dog licks the floor, bed, iron, or wood furniture.
- Nutrition – your skin has bacteria and other scents and flavors on it. Your skin might also have invisible foreign substances and nutrients that a dog is drawn to. From salt to saliva to pus we have it all!
- Genetics – phenotype, and genotype always are at play with all organisms. Disorders such as OCD: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (when speaking about dogs it’s referred to as CCD: Canine Compulsive Disorder) are also a reason why a dog licks you or other things.
- Vomeronasal organ (VNO), and the olfactory bulb are a complex array of nerves and organs that work together to sense the world around a dog
Taste and the vomeronasal organ (VNO), and the olfactory bulb work together to entice a dog to want to investigate an interesting smell for fun, survival, or otherwise.
Below are some common FAQs we get about dogs’ licking habits
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Feet?
Why do dogs lick feet? Because your feet are delicious and smelly. Feet licking occurs for many of the same reasons mentioned above.
It’s important to keep in mind where people have most of their scent glands (feet, armpits, genitals, face and mouth) It’s natural for a dog to want to smell your feet, face, armpits, genitals, mouth and any area that has our scent glands and bacteria concentrated.
Licking is one major way that dogs identify and communicate with us. Scent swapping is also a natural phenomenon in animal behavior such as dog urine counter marking, pawing at the earth where they mark their scent and other means by which to get to know one another and to relax and feel comforted.
Dogs don’t have email accounts or business cards, instead, they smell crotches, pee, and poop.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Face?
Dogs lick your face because your face hosts many scent receptors, hair follicles, and secretions such as ear wax, salt, sweat, tear ducts, and saliva.
Also, dogs lick your face for atavistic reasons. Dogs retained behavioral qualities carried over from wolves such as hoping you will regurgitate some of your food for them to eat.
Our mouth is a petri dish of bacteria, chemicals, and scents and is also where sound comes from when we verbally reward our dog with our voice. It is natural for a dog to want to lick your face.
However, it is vital to remember to avoid a dog bite to remember that a dog licking you or your face doesn’t always mean a dog is happy or friendly.
There is no correlation between a dog licking you and friendliness or happiness (just like a dog wagging its tail) a dog can lick your face and/or body out of fear, nervousness and anxiety and then bite you. So as always, you have to understand dog behavior and body language intimately and take into consideration the entire dog and environment, not just one behavior in a vacuum.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Hands?
Aside from the same reasons mentioned above, hands, in particular, are not washed very often–sigh.
Therefore, the myriad of scents and flavors on them is enticing to both a dog’s olfactory glands which leads them to want to taste your hands.
Why Do Dogs Lick You When You Pet Them?
Many dogs lick you when you pet them. When your dog licks you while you’re petting them, it most likely has more to do with proximity and arousal than anything else.
A dog can’t lick you when you’re standing up or won’t lick you most of the time if you are ignoring them while you are both sitting on the couch. But if you’re both petting your dog and on the same level as them, they are more inclined to lick your face, hands, or body.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Ears?
Ear wax, yum! Ear wax like other types of body secretions is interesting and tasty to dogs. When something is interesting to a dog they want to explore it with their mouth, via, tasting licking or eating it.
Why Do Dogs Lick Each Other’s Ears?
Dogs lick each other’s ears for the same reason as why they lick our ears. As a way to communicate, taste, scent swap, show affection, offer submissive behavior and or for fun.
Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?
Dog licking paws and dog chewing paws may be more complex than why a dog licks you. A dog could be licking its paw for a whole host of reasons including a medical issue such as dermatitis or an infection, something could be stuck in the webbing or pads of their feet, or there could be a hotspot. Or it may feel and/or taste good. As always make sure your dog gets regular health checkups from your veterinarian and is showing no other signs of illness.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Legs When I Get Out Of The Shower?
What better way to hydrate than to drink water and lick mom at the same time! Water, mixed in with other scents from your body and from the products you use to clean yourself is an enticing cocktail to your dog’s sense of smell and taste. Also, it’s a matter of convenience and access. If your dog was taller they would lick your crotch or face, but most dogs’ heads are positioned close to your legs so your legs are easy to access.
Why Do Dogs Lick You When You Blow In Their Face?
Likely a dog is stimulated and licking is an appeasement behavior while also trying to communicate with you. Also, a dog may be utilizing their sense of smell and their vomeronasal organ when a dog is blown on or when air is hitting their face.
Think about when your dog sticks their head out of the car window and licks the air.
Why Do Dogs Lick The Air?
Speaking of which, if nothing is blowing on your dog’s face as mentioned above, dogs licking the still air is more likely a behavioral disorder such as CCD canine compulsive disorder OR a lower level displacement behavior that your dog is signaling through tongue flicks that they have fear anxiety and stress at the moment.
You see dogs licking the air or their nose when a person or kid hugs a dog (don’t do it) or forces a dog into doing something they don’t want to do (also don’t do it).
For example, if a dog is scared of something or someone in the environment one of the many lower-level nervous signs a dog will display is tongue flicking or when a dog licks the air.
However, in some cases, a dog licking the air can be a neurological disorder. As always see your vet and make sure your dog has clean bill of health before moving down the checklist of potential reasons your dog is behaving a certain way. Medical reasons make up about 15% of all behaviors so start with your veterinarian then speak with your certified dog behaviorist and trainer.
Why Do Dogs Lick The Floor?
As carrion animals that scavenge and forage for food, the floor has a tremendous amount of enticing smells and tastes on it. A dog will naturally want to lick the floor to explore it and or taste what is on the floor.
Also, the floor texture and or temperature might be appealing to your dog. Many dogs like ice cubes or warm dishes and floors have a multitude of textures and temperatures to choose from.
Is It Dangerous For Dogs To Lick You?
No, as long as the dog is healthy and they didn’t just lick something gross, a dog’s saliva will not get you sick.
Dogs lick pus, blood, their genitals, anus, and poop off the floor. So a parent has to be careful about when a dog licks their face or skin as it could be unhealthy if your dog just ate raw food dangerous dog food or licked some other area with dangerous bacteria and pathogens.
Lastly, I would not allow any dog to lick a person’s face or body who is immune-compromised. Similarly, if your dog shows signs of sickness or if the dog is unknown to you, it is best not to let them lick you.