Why does my dog lick my face?

Whether you love it or hate it, dogs love to lick faces, it’s a fact and the more excited they are or the younger they are, the more they love to use their tongues. Whilst humans would associate this oral fixation with affection, it’s important to remember your dog doesn’t have the same thought process as you.

Even the most affectionate dog owner can find these ‘kisses’ inconvenient at times so it’s a good idea to learn a bit about why they love a lick so you can curb this behaviour when needed.

Why do puppies lick?

To understand why they love to lick us, we first must understand what dogs use their tongues for to begin with and there’s a lot of reasons that come from their first few days of life:

  • As soon as a puppy is born, its mother will lick it to clean the afterbirth up, ensure it’s taken its first breath and stimulate blood flow. A new-born pup will be licked by its mother to help it go to the toilet and mum will use her mouth and snout to nudge any pups reluctant to feed.
  • Most mummy dogs will have several puppies per litter and with no hands or opposable thumbs, she takes care of them with her mouth – not to mention the odd nip when they need to be taught some basic puppy manners.
  • Most puppies are born with their eyes closed and don’t start to open them until they’re a week or two old. For those first couple of weeks, they’re reliant on their sense of taste, smell, and sound. They’re using their nose to find their milk and once they’re close, their tongues come out.
  • Over the next few weeks, they learn their place in the world through communication with their mother and siblings. When their behaviour needs to be modified, they’re given a nip, when they’re shown affection it’s a lick.

This behaviour will often follow them into adulthood, a grown dog will still nip to prove dominance and lick to show submission.

Why do dogs lick humans?

When puppies transition from being surrounded by their canine family to a human family, it can be a confusing time for them. As they grow and learn they keep some of their puppy behaviours to help them adapt to their new human pack including being led by their sense of smell and taste.

  • Therapeutic grooming
    • Dogs don’t just lick themselves to keep clean, they do it for comfort too. When we stroke their fur, they again associate this gentle repetitive motion with feeling relaxed.

They can’t stroke us like we do to them, but they can lick us to tell us they’re trying to do something nice and comfort us.

  • Scent
    • Does your dog ever go into lick overdrive when you’ve just got out the shower? You’re nice and clean and before you know it, you’re covered in dog slobber. From your dog’s perspective you don’t smell quite like you should, you’ve used shower gel or soap and for a while, it’s covered your natural scent your dog is used to.

By licking you, your dog’s trying to impart their familiar scent back onto you – don’t forget, their mothers would lick them to keep them clean, so they don’t understand why you’re using chemicals.

  • Taste
    • If you’ve just been for a run or it’s the end of a long hot day you might be looking forward to jumping in the shower but that’s when you’re at your tastiest to your dog.

The salt in human sweat is very appealing to dogs which is why they love to lick you when you’re especially sweaty.

  • Hierarchy
    • Submissive dogs lick other dogs to show they acknowledge who’s in charge. The dog doing the licking will often make themselves smaller, avoid direct eye contact and will often lick somewhere that could be vulnerable like the neck or near the eyes.

Sometimes they lick their human companions for the same reason, they know you’re the boss and they’re letting you know they know it.

  • Conditioning or accidental training
    • Some dogs will lick you because you’ve accidently taught them that’s how they’ll get your attention. If you react, even negatively, they can learn a quick lick is a good way to get you to interact with them even if your reaction is negative from your perspective.

Is it ok to let my dog lick me?

For the most part it will come down to the individual preference of the owner as to whether the odd lick is OK but there’s some basic science even the most dedicated dog lover should be aware of.

Cornell University lecturer, Dr. Leni K. Kaplan explains about zoonotic bacteria. Zoonotic bacteria is bacteria that can be passed from animals to humans and cause disease. Things like E.coli and salmonella can make humans very sick, and in the young, old and those with some underlying health conditions, it can prove fatal.

Whilst it’s unlikely these zoonotic bacteria can be absorbed through your skin, any dog saliva that gets near your eyes or mouth or even a cut on your skin, could make its way into your body.

Does that mean my dog should never lick me?

No, so long as you don’t mind, licking will help your dog understand your world. You might want to make sure they’re not licking any small children as this can cause hygiene and pack hierarchy challenges. Try to discourage too much face licking but the odd reassuring lick to the hand (assuming there’s no broken skin) will help your dog.

How do I stop my dog licking me?

Whilst dogs don’t understand the reasons you don’t want to be licked, they do understand why they want to lick you. If it’s a behaviour you want to discourage, it should be done gradually. Don’t scold them or offer any interaction, just walk away and they’ll start to learn a lick doesn’t garner an interaction.

In exchange, you need to make sure they’re still getting whatever they needed from the lick interaction. If they’re licking you for comfort, make sure they’re stroked often. If the only time your dog gets any interaction from you throughout the day is a pat on the head as you’re moving about the home, find a few minutes here and there to sit with them. Once they know they’ll get regular attention, the need to request it should recede.

If you’re able to identify specific behaviours behind their lick, you can combat it. For example, if you’ve been for a run and your sweaty, go straight to the shower without letting your dog lick you. If you’ve had something tasty to eat and your dog is intrigued by the smell, wash your hands before you interact with your dog.

Whilst dogs use their mouths to understand the world around them, it doesn’t mean they always know what’s good and bad for them. If you’re ever concerned your dog might have consumed something that can make them ill, it’s always advised you contact your vet. At Petcover, we reimburse 100% of eligible vet bills so it’s one less thing to worry about. Get a quote today

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