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It can be difficult to pin down just one explanation for why dogs lick people and there’s even a good deal of debate about what a canine lick really means.
I’ve laid out a few of the most common explanations for the canine lick but it’s important to emphasize that a dog’s lick may have several meanings behind it.
Dogs could lick as a sign of affection towards you, as a way of getting attention, and simply because you have an interesting taste all at the same time! In other cases licking can be a soothing behavior for dogs and licking their favorite person can be a great way to relax.
Let’s take a closer look at the major reasons and how you can tell which one best explains your dog’s behavior.
Reason 1: Affection
The most common explanation for licking is that it’s a sign of affection. Mother dogs lick their puppies almost immediately after they give birth to them.
This immediate licking can encourage them to breathe now that they’re out of the womb but licking also helps clean off the newborn pups.
Mother dogs will continue to lick their puppies to keep them clean and as a sign of affection. As dogs grow older, they may still see licking as a way to show affection, and the habit continues with you!
But that’s not the only licking that dogs are exposed to as puppies.
While it’s a bit gross, puppies will lick their mom’s mouth as a way of requesting them to regurgitate their food for them. This is a common way for wild dogs to feed their puppies and wean them off their mother’s milk.
Our modern canine companions have plenty of puppy chow to make this option unnecessary but the instinct is still alive.
That doesn’t mean your dog is asking you to regurgitate your food for them.
Instead, it’s another way that the experience of licking is connected to the affection for their mother and positive experiences within puppyhood. Just about every breed, from Rotties to Great Danes and everything in between, will include licking as one of the many ways they show affection.
Reason 2: To Get Your Attention
Most humans are happy to get a little canine smooch and your dog will quickly learn that licking you can lead to attention.
For many dogs, it just becomes simple math, and licking their favorite person more is a great way to get petting, praise, or any other kind of attention. For most owners, licking is a much better option than something like barking in the middle of the night and most dogs find that licking leads to better attention than barking.
Reason 3: You Taste Good
We already know that most dogs are quite the culinary explorers and are more than happy to enjoy a new taste- whether that’s on your legs or on the floor.
Most dogs will appreciate the salty taste of your skin but any number of things could encourage dogs to keep licking. It could be the taste of your lotion, your shampoo, or the smell of a recent meal.
Dogs have a sense of smell that’s roughly 40 times stronger than our own so just because we can’t smell it doesn’t mean they can’t! And if something smells interesting to our dogs it’s certainly worth a lick!
Reason 4: Calming, Bonding, and Boredom
Studies have shown that licking releases endorphins for dogs. That makes licking a fun and relaxing thing to do if dogs are feeling any anxiety or even just boredom. Even better if they can lick you!
Dogs will also lick other dogs as a way to build bonds and support the hierarchy of the pack. Licking, especially the face, is a way for dogs to show some deference towards a more dominant member of the pack.
This same idea can also be applied to humans since in many ways you’re a part of the pack and a few licks could be a way to support your role.
Is a Dog Lick Really A “Kiss?”
In many cases, a lick is a kiss, or at least the equivalent of a kiss, for our dogs.
While licking has much more practical purposes for our dogs compared to the human kiss, it’s still fair to say that they’re roughly equivalent much of the time.
Is It Safe to Let Your Dog Lick You?
In general, there’s not much of a risk in allowing your dog to lick you. While it is possible for bacteria to be transmitted from your dog’s mouth to you, unless you have a compromised immune system or an open wound the risk is very low.
Dogs and cats carry a bacteria called Capnocytophaga in their mouths. This bacteria doesn’t make them sick but it can be harmful to humans. Again, the risk is very low unless you already have a weakened immune system.
The reporting of this condition isn’t perfect, but to put it in perspective, there have been 200 cases of capnocytophaga and human interactions since 1976.
Should You Let Your Dog Lick Your Face?
For those with compromised immune systems, the risk is even greater if you allow your dog to lick your face since your nose, mouth, and eyes present a greater risk for bacterial transmission.
But even then, the risk of any problem is quite low.
For those with sensitive skin, licking on the face could lead to breakouts but besides that, the risk isn’t much different than getting licking on your arm.
Even though allowing your dog to lick your face could be a form of bonding, it’s certainly not required, and when you consider what else your dog is licking you may not be so excited about it.
Does It Mean Different Things When a Dog Licks Their Owner Versus a Stranger?
It depends. Dogs may lick strangers for many of the same reasons that they lick their owners and while it could be a sign of affection, it could also just be because they have interesting taste.
Licking is one of those quintessential dog behaviors but it’s also something that we often don’t give much thought. But it turns out there’s a lot going on with just a simple canine lick!