One of the common questions that vets get asked by pooch parents is about their dog's licking habits. Many dogs will spend lots of time licking their owners, the furniture, or the carpet.
Being greeted at the door by their dog licking their face is just part of life for many owners. In fact, some even appreciate receiving such a loving welcome! However, other dog owners might become frustrated by their dog licking them, especially if it's excessive. So, here are some reasons why dogs lick their owners and what you can do about it.
1. You taste good!
Your dog might be licking you because you taste great! Whether you’ve been chopping food and your hands are covered in microscopic food particles, or whether you just put on that coconut body lotion, it’s possible your dog is licking you because your skin tastes delicious.
It might even be your natural body oils and sweat that your dog enjoys so much – that salty flavour is a canine favourite!
Be aware that some ingredients in body lotion may be toxic to dogs, so they should be discouraged from licking you after applying moisturiser.
2. Stress, boredom, anxiety
Unfortunately, our dogs are prone to stress, and this can sometimes manifest in obsessive behaviours. Repetitive licking of people, objects, and themselves can be a sign of stress, dog boredom, or anxiety in our canine friends. You might notice your dog only licks you when they’re anxious (for instance, during a thunderstorm or firework show), or it may be that your dog licks anytime you’re near them.
Licking is naturally comforting for dogs – it’s a grooming behaviour they undertake when calm and relaxed. In fact, it could even be seen as the canine equivalent of taking a deep breath in and out to calm down.
For these cases, providing more entertainment is useful, as it can resolve boredom and reduce stress. The best dog puzzle toys are useful for dogs suffering from boredom, anxiety, and stress. They also allow dogs to redirect the repetitive licking behaviour onto an appropriate toy. Lickimats and stuffed toys are great. Playing games with your dog can also relieve boredom, as can adding in some new training regimes.
If your dog’s anxiety is severe, you are likely to see other symptoms – at this point it’s worth discussing with your vet.
3. Canine dementia
In canine dementia (properly called ‘canine cognitive dysfunction’ or CCD), your dog can gain new repetitive behaviours, including licking you. If your dog is elderly and seems to be licking your foot or hand more than they used to, it’s possible canine cognitive dysfunction is to blame.
Other symptoms of CCD include changes in sleep-wake pattern, forgetfulness, toileting accidents, and anxiety. Luckily, treatment can resolve many of these symptoms, including licking!
4. You've accidentally trained them to do it!
Dogs are fast learners, and they’ll take just about anything as a reward. So, it’s possible you’ve actually trained your dog to lick you by inadvertently ‘rewarding’ his behaviour. For instance when your dog licks you, you move his head away and absentmindedly stroke him – that’s positive reinforcement. They’ll quickly learn that licking you gets a stroke!
Even telling him off can work as reinforcement – for many dogs, all attention is good attention, even if you’re asking them to stop. If your dog licking you gets you to give them attention, then they’ll carry on doing it.
So how can you stop it? Try to ignore your dog completely if they start licking, and silently move away. Your dog will soon realise that licking causes you to ignore him and leave the room, and he’ll quickly stop. Don’t forget to praise him when he’s sitting near you without licking you, too!
5. They're asking for food or information
Dogs lick other dog’s faces to communicate. Generally, it’s something a puppy does to an adult dog. To his mother, this might mean ‘feed me’, but to other adults in the pack, licking the face can be a submissive behaviour asking for approval. Socially, licking an adult dog’s face is saying ‘I’m just a puppy, you take the lead and tell me how to behave.'
Vets and researchers aren’t quite sure whether dogs lick human’s faces for the same reason. But, if your dog is still young, there’s a possibility they’re looking for guidance… or for food!
How to stop a dog from excessively licking
Although some dog licking is normal, it can be annoying if your dog licks excessively, whether it's you or your home furnishings. It's important to remember that how you act when your dog is licking can have a tangible impact on their future behavior.
Use positive reinforcement
If your dog approaches and licks your hand, it's almost a reflex to stroke their head, but this could easily cause them to associate licking you with getting a fuss. Similarly, if they're licking the sofa and you want them to stop, you might approach them and give them fuss as you lead them away, or even give them a reward like a chew to keep them occupied.
Keep them occupied
Frustratingly though, the opposite behavior might also cause your dog to lick since even if you tell them off, you're still acknowledging them and giving them attention. The best way to discourage excessive licking altogether is to ignore the behavior and provide plenty of activities to give your pooch plenty of alternatives to keep them busy.
Visit your vet for a check-up
Remember, though, that excessive licking can sometimes indicate a medical problem, like anxiety, for instance. Dementia is common in older dogs, and this can also cause some odd behaviors, like licking. It's also possible that your dog is licking as a form of pica, where a nutrient deficiency causes them to eat or lick inedible things. So, if you can't seem to get your dog's excessive licking under control, it's worth taking them to the veterinary clinic for a general health check.
These are five possible reasons your dog might be licking you, but getting to the bottom of the problem can be tricky. Whilst licking isn’t necessarily harmful, dog’s mouths are dirty places and there is a risk they can pass on germs to family members. So, it’s best to stop your dog from licking people wherever possible.
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After graduating as a veterinarian from the University of Nottingham, Dr Joanna Woodnutt went on to practice companion animal medicine in the Midlands. She quickly developed a love of consulting and helping clients with medical problems such as dermatology, behaviour and nutrition - anything that involved helping clients understand their pets better. Jo started writing about pet health in 2017, realising that it meant she could help even more pet parents. Since then, she has written for countless online and print publications and is a regular contributor for Edition Dog Magazine. Jo now lives in the Channel Islands with her husband Ian and terrier Pixie, and they are expecting their first child very soon.