Why Do Dogs Lick You?

Behavior
November 30, 2023
Author: 
Diana Bocco
Reviewed By: 
5 minute read

Welcome to the world of dogs - our loyal, furry companions known for their wagging tails, enthusiastic barks, and, of course, those slobbery licks. Licking is a lot more than just a wet greeting — for dogs, it’s a complex language where each lick can tell a different story.

Licking is a natural animal behavior — cats groom themselves, deer lick their young, and even primates use licking for social bonding. Dogs, however, seem to use licking a lot more to express their feelings, show affection, and communicate. 

The Science Behind Licking

From the moment puppies are born, they rely heavily on their sense of touch to navigate their environment — and licking is a big part of it. Mother dogs lick their puppies not only to clean them but also to stimulate their bodily functions, such as digestion and excretion. This early mother-puppy interaction establishes an important form of communication and bonding — and as puppies grow, they mimic this behavior, using licking to explore the world and express affection and care with those around them.1

Licking in dogs also plays a role in their communication and social bonding. In a pack, dogs use licking to show respect to more dominant members. And at home, licking works the same way — it strengthens the bond between dogs and their human companions. When a dog licks its human, it can be a sign of trust and comfort, reinforcing the emotional connection between the dog and its owner.

Biological Factors Influencing Licking

Dogs experience the world through a complex sensory system, with their nose and tongue doing much of the work. Scientific studies have shown that a dog's sense of smell is between 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than humans, thanks to their more than 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to about six million in humans.2 Their tongue is just as powerful, allowing them to gather information about food sources, the emotional state of other animals, or even the presence of potential threats in their environment. 

Licking also plays a significant role in a dog’s emotional well-being. Similar to human behaviors such as nail-biting or fidgeting, licking can be a self-soothing activity that releases endorphins, the body's natural feel-good hormones — and these endorphins can improve your dog's mood and reduce stress and anxiety levels. Studies have also found that licking could act as a coping mechanism in stressful situations. The act of licking, especially repetitive licking of themselves or their owners, can create a calming, almost meditative state for dogs, helping them to manage anxiety and stress.3

Behavioral and Psychological Aspects

Not all licks are created equal. While loving licking is perfectly fine, excessive licking can be a red flag indicating underlying anxiety or stress. For example, a dog might excessively lick its paws due to stress, boredom, or even underlying health issues like allergies. Compulsive licking can also be a symptom of separation anxiety or a response to environmental stressors.

To manage and train dogs exhibiting excessive licking, a combination of positive reinforcement and behavior modification techniques is often effective. Positive reinforcement involves rewarding desirable behavior (such as calmness or playing with toys) to encourage its recurrence while ignoring the unwanted licking behavior. 

Behavior modification might include providing mental stimulation through puzzle toys, increasing physical activity, or creating a structured routine that gives the dog a sense of security. In some cases, intervention from a professional dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist might be necessary.4 

Affectionate vs. Attention-Seeking Licking

Figuring out whether your dog is licking you to show affection or as a plea for attention can sometimes be challenging, but there are some clues that can help you figure it out. Affectionate licking tends to be gentle and is often accompanied by other signs of relaxation, such as a wagging tail or a relaxed body posture. This type of licking is a dog's way of showing love — think of it as a hug or a kiss in human terms.5 

On the other hand, attention-seeking licking often comes with more persistent and insistent behavior. Your dog might lick you non-stop while also pawing or nudging you. This usually means your dog wants something and is trying to communicate with you — maybe he’s hungry, wants to play catch, or just wants your attention. This behavior often indicates that the dog wants something, be it food, play, or simply more interaction with its owner. 

Something else to keep in mind is that licking behaviors can vary among dog breeds. Breeds like Labrador Retrievers and Boxers are known for their affectionate nature and may be more prone to licking as a sign of love and bonding. In contrast, more independent breeds like Shiba Inus or Chow Chows may lick less simply because they’re not used to showing much affection. A dog's genetics, early experiences, training, and socialization can all impact how and when they use licking as a form of communication. 

Health and Hygiene Considerations

Remember ever hearing that your dog’s saliva can help heal a wound? Well, studies show there’s truth to this — at least partially.6 Dog saliva contains proteins and other beneficial chemicals that have antimicrobial properties. These proteins can help in fighting off some bacteria and fungi and can aid in wound healing — which is why dogs instinctively would lick a wound. 

On the other hand, a dog's mouth can also carry various bacteria and parasites, some of which can be transmitted from animals to humans. These microorganisms can be particularly harmful if they come into contact with open wounds or the mucous membranes of the face, leading to infections, especially in people with weakened immune systems.

Conclusion

At Cola’s Kitchen, we do more than just provide top-notch fresh food for your furry companions. We're also committed to enhancing the understanding and communication between you and your pets.

By trying to understand why our dogs lick us, we can become more attuned to their needs and find a better way to communicate. It's a quirky yet fundamental aspect of the bond we share with our canine friends. So, the next time your dog offers you a wet, sloppy kiss, remember there's more to that lick than meets the eye.

References:

  1.  https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/lifestyle/why-dog-licks-muzzle/ 
  2.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5884888/ 
  3.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6116041/ 
  4.  https://www.webmd.com/pets/dogs/why-does-my-dog-lick-me 
  5.  https://www.webmd.com/pets/dogs/why-does-my-dog-lick-me 
  6.  https://www.petmd.com/dog/general-health/dog-saliva-9-fast-facts-you-should-know 
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