Why Do Dogs Lick Us?

Why Do Dogs Lick Us?

What do you love most about dogs? That waggy tail? That cold, wet nose? Maybe you love those happy, sloppy licks that seem to say, “I love you!”

But is a lick really a kiss? What is your dog really trying to tell you when they give you a smattering of wet kisses?

One Lick Leads To Another

Dogs, like most creatures, will continue to do something if they find the result is rewarding. That’s why it’s so easy to help them learn to perform tricks and to redirect undesirable behavior.

When your dog licks you, you might return their affection with petting, laughing and attention. That positive response motivates your dog to lick you again and again.

If you don’t like it when your dog licks you, you can simply ignore them or walk away when they do. If your dog does not get the attention they desire by licking you, they will not do it as often. You can teach your dog what does get your attention instead: bringing you a toy, for example.

A Kiss To Break The Tension

Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell wrote about another reason why dogs lick. She calls it a kiss to dismiss. This is when your dog actually uses licking to get another dog or a human to go away.

If your dog licks you when you are clipping their nails or getting too close to their bone, they may actually be nervous, using licking as a way to increase distance or break the tension. This type of licking is usually different than an affection lick. It tends to be rapid and rough.

A “kiss to dismiss” might be a polite way for your dog to communicate that they are uncomfortable without resorting to growling or biting. If you suspect this is happening, think about what might be making your dog nervous.

For example, if your dog is licking you while you’re clipping their nails, you should take a break. You may need to re-train your dog to feel calm while having their nails clipped. Make sure you’re not tensing up or holding your breath while doing it; if you’re nervous, your dog will be too. Trim nails when your dog is very sleepy, and follow up each clip with lots of praise, petting and a treat.

Why Puppies Lick Their Parents

When puppies are just a few weeks old, their parents typically regurgitate (yes, barf) up predigested food for them as they start transitioning from milk to solid food. Puppies lick their parents’ mouths to get them to regurgitate a tasty pile of vomit for them.

So, it’s not a stretch to assume that dogs might have some leftover instincts that drive them to try the same thing with us. If your dog licks your mouth when they’re hungry, they might be trying to get you to serve up some grub – or, they could just be trying to get your attention.

Should You Let Your Dog Lick You?

Every once in a while, you might discover articles or news clips trying to scare you about the dangers of doggy kisses. But if you look closely, you’ll find that the hype is totally overblown just to get your attention. When a dog owner contracts some deadly blood infection, the news will blame their dog’s licks – but it’s tough to prove the source of the bacteria.

These cases are so few and far between, and few are actually traced back to a dog’s mouth. Other articles claim that bacteria from a dog can actually boost the immune system, but this applies to infants who are developing immunity during their first year of life.

If you’re nervous about germs, tilt your chin up when your dog licks you to keep that sloppy tongue away from your mouth. Brush your dog’s teeth a few times a week (daily, if possible) to prevent canine gum disease, which might be transmitted to humans through licking.

What Does A Lick Mean To You?

Watch closely next time your dog offers up that wet tongue. You might notice that your dog has different licks for different occasions: a soft, single lick as though to say “goodnight,” a rough rapid-fire of rough licks when they’re hungry, and over-the-top joyous licks as part of their “welcome home” ceremony.

It’s amazing how much dogs “talk” to us without saying a word – if only we take the time to listen!

Image Source: Jackie Nell

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2 Responses to Why Do Dogs Lick Us?

  1. Hi Lindsay!

    Very informative article – thanks!

    I do allow my dogs to lick me – and I’m not really phased about people who think it’s gross.

    We love sharing kisses in our home.

    I always tilt my chin up to keep those sloppy tongues away from my face just like you recommend.

    I experience the kiss to dismiss too. Charley, my GSD has HD, she’s going for an FHO on December 7. I regularly do accupressure massage with her. I only do it when she offers her hind quarter and never force her. And I know when she’s had enough because of her fast, rough licking.

    This is such a great article to share with people, the more we know about how our pooches communicate with us the better we can understand them.
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