If you’ve ever said, “Oh, he’s kissing you!” as your pup enthusiastically licks someone, you’re not wrong. Dog licking is a sign of affection. However, if your pup focuses their licking exclusively on someone’s face, it could mean they’re subconsciously looking for a snack (we’ll explain this later). The slobbery practice of licking—like most canine habits—is instinctual. Sure, there are ways to curb it if it gets out of control, but it’s typically not a cause for concern. Read on so you can answer more thoroughly the next time someone asks, “Why do dogs lick you?”
Dog licking is a sign of affection
Dr. Amber Karwacki, Partner Doctor of Heart + Paw Callowhill, confirmed what we’ve long suspected: Dogs usually lick people to show affection. “Their mother groomed them when they were younger so your dog sees licking as comforting and affectionate,” Dr. Karwacki tells us. “Dogs, as they grow, will show that same behavior towards their owners.”
Mother dogs lick their newborn puppies for many reasons. Dr. Sue Furman, Ph.D., says female dogs lick their newborns (who are born blind and deaf) to clean them and guide them towards milk. Beyond that, a good lick from mom gets the blood pumping and stimulates the nervous and digestive systems. Plus, it’s a bonding activity! Licking is so important in the first few hours, days and weeks that puppies who don’t receive solid licking from mom rarely grow into physically and emotionally healthy adult dogs. So, yeah. When a dog licks you to mimic this kind of love, it’s definitely a sign of affection.
Funnily enough, unlike cats, who spend their whole lives grooming themselves and each other with licks, canines grow out of this practice when it comes to other dogs. It’s uncommon to see one dog licking another dog (it happens, it’s just less common). Puppies might lick each other until six or eight weeks old when they are weaned from their mother, but beyond that, it seems they save their drool for us.
Dog licking could be a sign of hunger
One other reason your dog may lick your face is because they expect a treat or food. Allow us to elaborate. You know how bird moms will regurgitate food for their hatchlings? Wolves used to do that too. Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside Of A Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know and head of Barnard College’s Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab, tells the American Kennel Club that canine pups in the wild (think: foxes, wolves and coyotes) have been known to lick their mother’s face when she comes back from a hunting excursion in the hopes that she’ll regurgitate food for them. In other words, dogs licking your face might be sniffing out an earlier meal in the hopes that you’ll…share. They might also just be showing how much they love you.
Dogs and their tongues
Sure, your dog can smell better than you can, but we’ve got canines beat in the taste department. Compared to our 9,000 taste buds, dogs only have about 1,700. This means their ability to taste food (and us when they lick) isn’t great. Dogs depend largely on scent to know what they’re eating and whether it’s delicious or disgusting. Since their sense of smell is literally one million times better than ours, it’s no wonder they beg for our food all the time. It probably smells better to them than it tastes to us! All this to say, dogs probably aren’t licking you because you taste good, but they might lick you if you smell like bacon.
Is it bad to let a dog lick you?
Dr. Karwacki says there are two reasons you may not want your dog to lick you—especially on the face. The first is behavioral. “Licking can be attention seeking, especially if you pet them or give them attention when they do,” she says. If licking becomes obsessive or your dog is really going to town and doesn’t stop when you use commands like “Down” or “Sit,” it’s wise to train an alternative form of affection. Compulsive and excessive licking could also be signs of boredom or anxiety. Check out your dog’s body language and the context in which this behavior occurs.
Second, dog mouths are full of bacteria. And viruses. And yeast! Also, have you seen the things they pick up with their mouths? Dr. Karwacki says for the most part, when your dog licks your skin, it isn’t bad. “It can become a problem when the saliva comes in contact with a mucous membrane such as your mouth, eyes, and nose. In general, it is best to avoid your pet licking your face but other areas are fine,” she says.
Dogs licking themselves
Dogs are totally allowed to lick themselves as often as they like. They’re keeping themselves clean! Licking becomes a cause of concern when it’s focused intensely on one area, like the paws. Paws are common targets for constant licking because debris and pests can easily get stuck in the fur between doggy toes. If you notice your pup really digging into their paws (or any body part) exclusively, take a closer look to make sure nothing is amiss. Many canines suffer from atopic dermatitis which can cause itchy, irritated skin. Dogs might think the only solution is to lick, lick, lick.