There’s no doubt that dogs are affectionate creatures. And they have numerous ways of showing it. One of these ways is by licking their owners. You may enjoy it when your furry friend comes up and gives you a big ol’ pooch smooch. But why do dogs lick you? In a poll* of dog owners, IAMS™ found a large majority (75%) believe dogs lick people to offer signs of friendliness. That’s definitely a correct assumption. Let’s dive a bit deeper for a better understanding.
Licking has been a social behavior among dogs since the days of the great-great-great granddaddy wolf. 'It’s a standard canine greeting to lick others around the face,” agrees James Serpell, B.S., Ph.D., Professor of Humane Ethics & Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “Junior members of the pack will run around and lick the mouths of more senior members.” But is that all that there is to dog licking behavior? Or are there more reasons why dogs lick people? Let’s find out!
Why do dogs lick people?
Here are a few reasons that can explain why dogs like to lick.
It’s their way of showing affection
For dogs, licking is equivalent to kissing or showing affection. You may have noticed female dogs licking their puppies which is a behavior that is intended to show affection. And your dog considers you part of their pack, so they show you affection the same way their kind does - by licking.
You taste great… or at least interesting
Dogs are oral creatures and gather a lot of information about their surroundings through taste and smell. Maybe you’re salty after a sweaty run. Maybe you’ve got barbecue sauce on your face. “Dogs can smell a lot better than we can,” says Dr. Jo Gale, BVetMed CertLAS MRCVS, Senior Manager, Global Science Advocacy at Waltham Petcare Science Institute, “so they find a lot more things interesting to lick than we can.” This is despite the fact that dogs only have about 1,700 taste buds compared to around 9,000 in humans.
They want your attention
Have you been too busy with work lately? Or has anything kept you inattentive toward your pooch? If so, it’s probably one of the reasons why your dog is licking you. It is also possible that your dog just got too bored and wants you to play with them, which is why they’re suddenly licking you.
They have OCD
That’s true. Much like humans, dogs can also suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which can be concerning. It is often triggered due to stress and anxiety and makes the dogs suddenly begin licking. You will need to visit your vet if you suspect this to be the case.
Why is my dog licking my wounds?
Unlike humans, no other animals have knowledge about or access to proper healthcare. So, when they get injured, their first instinct is to lick their wounds. This helps them numb the pain to a certain extent, and also clean the wound. Thus, when your dog sees a wound on you, their natural instincts kick in and they try to help you by licking the wound, thinking it will clean the wound and lower the pain.
In fact, in ancient Greece, dogs at the shrine of Asclepius were trained to lick patients. In the Middle Ages, Saint Roch was said to have been cured of a plague of sores through his dog’s licking. The French even have a saying, “langue de chien, langue de médecin,” which translates to, “a dog’s tongue, a doctor’s tongue.”
Don’t cancel your health insurance just yet. While a dog’s saliva does have some possible bactericidal properties against some types of bacteria, it can put you at risk of exposure to others. Too much licking can also reopen the wound and cause further infection. With modern medicine, you’re much better off hitting the first-aid kit. And that myth about dogs’ mouths being cleaner than humans’? Not true — both contain over 600 types of bacteria.
How to handle a dog that licks too much?
While an occasional canine kiss is “aww”-inducing, some dogs can overdo it to the point of annoyance. When this happens, the best thing to do is “completely ignore it and give no attention,” suggests Dr. Jo Gale. “When they stop, provide them with attention.” This acts as a form of positive reinforcement. Over time your dog will learn to scale back on the smooches. Another thing you can try is training them to cut back on the licking. Remember to use positive reinforcement in this case too - reward them with treats or toys when they display good behavior.