Some dogs love to lick, whether it’s themselves, each other or their favourite humans! Here, we look at the reasons our dogs might be licking us, and what you should do if the habit is getting a little out of hand.
Dogs lick themselves and each other for many reasons, from nurturing their puppies to self-grooming and social interactions. And they often lick people, too. We can’t always read our dog’s minds, but we can make some educated guesses about the reasons dogs lick their owners, based on their wider licking behaviours.
Why do dogs lick things?
Some dogs will lick everything – themselves, a family member, a piece of furniture... Licking can serve an exploratory purpose, allowing dogs to investigate their surroundings. This kind of licking is particularly common in puppies, and while it’s not usually a concern, it can be a sign of anxiety, especially when seen in older dogs.
Dog licking can also be about grooming and soothing. Sometimes dogs will lick themselves to clean their coats, ease itchy skin or relieve pain. They may lick wounds to soothe themselves, which unfortunately in some cases can lead to infection.
Licking behaviour can also be a form of social interaction, and this is likely to be a factor if your dog is licking you or other family members.
Why do dogs lick us?
There are a number of different reasons why your dog might be licking you, so let’s look at each of them in a little more detail.
Licking is a very nurturing behaviour, as seen in a mother dog, who will lick her puppies to keep them clean and comfort them. Domestic dogs may lick us to recreate this bonding feeling. When dogs lick out of affection, ‘feel-good’ hormones called endorphins are released, which encourages them to keep on licking!
Our dogs often try to communicate with us in their natural doggy language – the trouble is, we don’t always understand them! As long as your dog’s licking isn’t accompanied, or followed, by biting, the chances are they’re trying to communicate something more positive, such as respect or a desire for attention.
For example, in the wild, older puppies lick their mother’s faces to communicate their hunger. This can also be a subordinate gesture that signals deference to other, more senior, members of their pack. So if your dog is licking your face (or other dogs’ faces) a lot, it might be a throwback to this appeasing behaviour.
Do you give your dog a pat every time they come up and lick you? If the answer is yes, then you’re reinforcing their licking behaviour – because your dog gets a reward every time they do it. Perhaps you even get up and fetch them a treat or a toy as a distraction? If you’re trying to understand the reasons for your dog licking you, don’t forget to factor in your own behaviour, to see if you’re inadvertently encouraging them.
Dogs gain a lot of information when they lick something. Licking helps them take in scents and tastes from their environment. So dogs may lick a new person to try and understand more about them, much in the same way that we might touch things out of curiosity.
Sometimes our skin just tastes great to dogs! Whether you’ve just got home from the gym and you’re still intriguingly sweaty, or you’ve been making dinner and your dog can detect the smell of sausages, the particles left on our skin can be irresistible to our dogs.
How to get your dog to stop licking you
A couple of friendly licks from your dog when you come home can be pretty endearing. But if you’d prefer them to keep their tongue to themselves more often, then it’s time for some training.
The first step is to remove any positive reinforcement you might be giving your dog when they lick you. So, rather than give them a head-scratch or a food treat, try to ignore the behaviour or walk away. Once they’re no longer trying to lick you, turn back to them and greet them as normal.
Sometimes redirecting your dog’s attention to something else can help distract them from the unwanted behaviour. So when they lick you, ask them for their favourite trick instead.
Excessive dog licking
Licking is a very natural behaviour in dogs, and in most cases it’s absolutely nothing to worry about. But if the licking is starting to feel excessive – for example, if your dog is licking you all the time, and doesn’t respond to the training tips above – it might be time to ask your vet for advice.
That’s also a good idea if your dog is licking themselves constantly, as this can sometimes be a sign of stress or pain. Your vet will be able to investigate any underlying causes, such as skin allergies, dry skin or parasites. No one knows your dog better than you do; so if you’re worried something isn’t right, or feels out of character for them, it’s always well worth getting them checked out.
Does your dog love to lick you? If you think you’ve figured out their reasons, head over to our Facebook page and let us know!