What Does It Mean When a Dog Licks You?
While some dog licking can be affectionate, obsessive licking could be a sign of an underlying issue, such as anxiety or OCD.
Everyone has met dogs who lick people - and especially dogs who lick faces. Some pet parents love to get ‘kisses’ right on the face, and some pet parents do not enjoy this!
Why Do Dogs Lick You?
Dogs lick for many possible reasons. While we can’t just ask a dog, we can use context to gather more information. For example, we can observe what happens right before a dog licks or what happens afterward to identify patterns and possible causes.
A warm, wet tongue can startle us. But that motion or “Agh!” can be something a dog enjoys. After a surprise lick, you might look at your dog, talk to him or give him other attention.
For those pet parents who enjoy licks to the face, the attention and interaction may be enjoyable. This could encourage more licking in the future.
While Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is not a diagnosis in dogs, Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD) is a possible diagnosis from a veterinarian. CCD may be diagnosed when a normal behavior, such as licking, is repetitively occurring more often or for longer and outside of the context of normal interactions. These behaviors can intensify and interfere with a dog’s life and ability to have regular daily functions.
If we keep notes on what happens before the licking starts, we might identify stress as a possible cause for excessive licking. For example, a dog might lick during thunderstorms, and over time this might begin when the barometric pressure changes, not just after the thunder starts. Likewise, a dog might lick more when guests are over. Even if a dog enjoys visitors, the change of routine can create some stress.
A typical example of this may be dogs who face lick when a pet parent comes home from work or outings. While some dogs might face lick for attention and your response, if this licking only happens when you come home, we may need to investigate for possible separation distress.
In many wild relatives of dogs, the pups may lick the mother’s face during the weaning process to prompt her to regurgitate food for them. We don’t know how often this happens with domestic dogs. It is possible the face-licking dogs do towards humans is related to this behavior, and rather than “kissing” as people do, a dog may just be asking you to feed him!
One dog licking the face of another is sometimes in the category of “appeasement behaviors.” This means a dog is trying to show that he is no threat, possibly when the two are being introduced or after a tense moment during play. We can also see this after a dog is scolded. We may interpret it as the dog saying, “I’m sorry!” but it’s more likely he’s saying, “I’m no threat!” and doesn’t connect the inappropriate behavior and scolding.
You Taste Good!
Some types of hand lotions, products, or changes in the skin from sweat may taste good to dogs. If you notice your dog licks more after you use a specific product, it may be that something in the product tastes good to him. However, do your best not to give him that opportunity, as these products are not meant to be ingested.
When to Prevent Licking
Some people don’t like dogs licking. If you don’t mind your dog licking your face, but you know your friend doesn’t like it - that’s ok! You can compromise by meeting at your friend’s house while your dog stays home, going out for lunch rather than meeting at your house, or putting strategies in place so your dog can’t lick your friend. These strategies might be using a baby gate or crate or closing a bedroom door. If your dog has had training, he can hang out on his bed instead of bugging your friend.
Dog saliva can create skin irritation for some people. While it’s not common, there is the risk of disease transmission or infection. Dog mouths aren’t quite as clean as some people may believe, and dogs investigate many gross things with their noses and mouths!
How to Stop a Dog from Licking
If you don’t want your dog to lick you, here are a few steps to get you started:
- Anticipate when it may happen and prevent the situation. If your dog licks your face when you get home from work, you can pet him in a way that keeps your face away from his face.
- Show him what to do. Use fun training games like eye contact or holding still. If he has other ways to get attention or other tasks to focus on when slightly distressed, we should see a decrease in licking.
- If he starts, calmly move away, don’t let him continue. This will minimize the rewards he gets and reduce distress to you.
And- if you have some people in your home who love face licking and others who don’t - your dog will learn who likes it and who does not. That’s a perfectly appropriate compromise in many homes!
What Happens During Behavioral Dog Training?
A dog training professional can help you identify the licking predictors and develop a plan for your dog. If your dog is licking more when stressed, a professional will guide you through activities to decrease your dog’s stress level. If your dog is licking more when you put on lotion, then skills like “Leave It” or a short stay may be helpful for the few minutes after you apply the cream.