Experts weigh in on the meaning behind why dogs lick people.
You either love it or hate it: that wet, warm sensation of a dog licking your face. Many of us seek out this kind of interaction with our dogs (sometimes much to the horror of onlookers) while others try to discourage the behavior. Many dog lovers attribute a lot of meaning to dogs licking us, especially if we’re the sort that enjoy it – we say our dogs are giving us kisses and we interpret that as a sign of affection, but are dog kisses really a sign of affection? Or are they just after the leftovers we forgot to wipe off our chins?
Why do Dogs Lick People?
Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Chair of The Association of Professional Dog Trainers Nick Hof, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, KPA-CTP, CSAT, explains there are a lot of reasons why dogs lick people’s hands, feet or faces. It might mean your dog wants to show you affection, but it could also be because you taste good or that your dog is struggling with compulsive behavior.
If you are wearing sweet-scented lotion, or come home sweaty, your dog might be licking you because you taste good. I know my own dogs are very excited to lick my hands if I’ve been eating something greasy or salty, like potato chips. Hof mentions that dog guardians shouldn’t be alarmed by their dogs finding them delicious – they probably won’t take a bite out of you!
While most of the time dog kisses aren’t anything to be concerned about, Hof warns there are times when the kissing might be a sign of something else going on with your dog. He advises that there might be an underlying health issue “if the licking seems to be compulsive, excessive, or self-destructive; if it is difficult to redirect your dog or they are harming themselves, you should consult with your veterinarian for help addressing this issue.”
Are Dog Kisses Actually Signs of Affection?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to dogs’ intentions when licking their people, but it seems to come down to whether your dog is seeking you out, or if you are seeking your dog out.
Hof explains, “It’s helpful to look at the context of the licking to better understand and pay attention to other signals besides the licking or the kiss, such as the dog approaching the owner and choosing to engage in the behavior despite having the option to move away or leave; or was the dog thrust upon and looking away and licking his lips as well?” In other words, forced affection on the part of the guardian can warp the true intention of a dog’s kiss – a dog will “kiss” your face to appease you and make go away rather than to display their love for you.
Hof offers the following important reminder: “it’s always best to invite your dog to approach you so that you feel more confident they’ve made that choice willingly. When you begin to respect your dog’s autonomy, you see more comfort and confidence in their behavior.” What you can count on as a result is knowing the way your dog behaves with you is genuine.
For safety reasons (and this is a hard one for many of us who share our lives with dogs), Hof states that it is not recommended for people to put their faces up to their dogs’ faces. Although this is often done as a sign of affection from us, it is very commonly invasive to our dogs and they may not appreciate it. This is where we most often see dogs licking or “kissing” their person’s face as a way for the dog to avoid conflict.
This “Kiss to Dismiss”, as coined by the Family Paws Organization, is often paired with a look away from the person and licking of lips. If you would like to have a close moment with your dog, invite them to do so with you, and if they want to come up to your face, they will – but if not, respect it when they say ‘no’. Obviously we want our dogs to be comfortable so it’s important to be thoughtful of how we physically show emotions to our dogs, so that our dogs don’t feel pressured to appease us through kisses.
How to Get Your Dog to Stop Licking You
If your dog is prone to kisses and you or your family and guests aren’t fans of it, Hof explains the best thing you can do is to be proactive with training your dog.
“If you see them approaching and you know they’re going to lick you, ask them to sit as they approach, then redirect their affection and energy onto a toy or other activity. If, when you sit down to watch TV, your dog tries to give you a tongue bath, give them a stuffed Kong or a bone to enjoy instead of your sweat or lotion.”
Getting ahead of the behavior is particularly important. “If you wait until they are already licking you to always redirect, you may inadvertently reinforce the licking behavior with a treat or chew,” Hof cautioned. Simply this means your dog may increase his licking in order to get the treats you were using to redirect the licking in the first place.
If you have a hard time redirecting your dog or discouraging licking behavior, it’s a good idea to talk with your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist to determine if there is something going on with your dog causing what might be obsessive licking behavior. Dog trainer Jill Breitner reminds us that, “Licking as in lip licking or tongue flicks are a sign of stress.” She also points out that it can happen quickly and that dog guardians may not even realize that their dog is stressed.
“Context is always key in decoding the emotional state of a dog,” explains Breitner, creator of the Dog Decoder App in collaboration with artist Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings. This interactive education app teaches users about canine body language and how to better read what your dog is telling you about their emotional wellbeing through body language. The app is available for iPhones and Androids.