Achoo! Sneezing happens to everyone, leaving you reeling while you spray germs across the room. Suddenly, your furry friend is right beside you, using his tongue to paint you with doggy drool.
Many dog owners are concerned when they realize their dog licks them whenever they sneeze. Is this unexpected response to sneezing normal?
We all know way too well how our canine companions are undefeated champs when it comes to ingesting gross substances that they shouldn’t (seriously, how did Fido manage to get into the trash again?!?). Are they trying to eat germs and stray boogers? Or is there a different explanation?
The best explanation for why your dog licks you when you sneeze is that he is comforting you. The human sneeze is an unfamiliar sound to dogs that can easily be confused with a distressed yelp of pain. Your dog believes licking you will alleviate your discomfort.
Let’s explore this reason, as well as another possibility, in more detail.
Reason One: Your Dog Is Trying To Comfort You
This is the most plausible explanation for why your dog licks you when you sneeze.
The cute little sneezes that dogs make can sound quite different from the dramatic sneezes that people make. When dogs sneeze, it is a burst of air with no funny vocalizations included. People on the other hand, make a wide range of silly sounds when we sneeze, with the most famous being the sudden, high-pitched “a-choo!”.
Out of all of the sounds dogs make, a startled, high-pitched yelp of pain has the most similar sound profile to a human sneeze. You read that correctly, your sneeze sounds more like a pained dog than a doggy sneeze!
You also involuntarily engage your abdominal muscles when you sneeze, which can force you to double over while sneezing your brains out. Because this doesn’t happen to our four-legged companions who are built differently, they think your hunched posture is a reaction to a painful stimulus and could find your sneeze more than a little frightened.
Okay, so your dog thinks an invisible force has harmed you when you sneeze. Why do they think licking you is the best way to help?
To many people, being licked by a slimy tongue is not an enjoyable feeling. However, the one committing the licking crimes has a very different perception. For dogs, being licked is like having a spa day because it is a grooming behavior. And like in all mammals, yourself included, social grooming behaviors make you feel good by triggering the release of happy hormones.
However, no one ever sat your dog down to explain that just because he enjoys being licked, it doesn’t mean others enjoy being licked. Hence the miscommunication between species.
If you still have doubts about this explanation, you should check out this scientific study where dogs licked humans pretending to be sad in order to cheer them up.
Reason Two: Your Dog Has Learned That He Will Receive Attention
Did you know you can accidentally train your canine companion to lick you when you sneeze? Most dogs can quickly piece together that doing so is a sure-fire way to be rewarded with one of their favorite things—attention!
You may respond to be licked by reassuring your dog in that special “who’s a good boy?” tone of voice reserved only for him that you are unharmed. Or, maybe you gently tell him off because not everyone enjoys being licked. Any attention, positive or negative, is still attention to your dog. And once he learns that licking you after you sneeze results in attention, you’ll have created a licking monster through accidental positive reinforcement.
How to Train Your Dog to Stop Licking You When You Sneeze
Not everyone wants dog drool all over them, and that’s understandable! Your dog has plenty of other options to choose from when it comes to expressing their love for you. So if being licked isn’t your cup of tea, here are some ways you can teach your dog to stop.
The first way is to stop giving your dog attention when he licks you when you sneeze. Ignore your dog and turn your body away from him. That might sound awful, but let me elaborate. You only ignore your dog while he is licking you. This way, he will quickly learn that he doesn’t get any attention from licking you.
As soon as your dog stops his licking, give him plenty of attention! This will teach him that he gets more attention when his tongue is in his mouth where it belongs—not on you!
While the video below demonstrates teaching your dog to stop licking in general, it does a great job showing positive reinforcement training performed properly. The concepts in the video can be applied to any specific context where licking occurs, including as a result of sneezing. Plus, training your dog to not lick you, in general, will help discourage him from licking you when you sneeze.
If your dog chooses to comfort you in other ways when you sneeze, such as by nuzzling you, make sure you give him extra attention to teach him you’d rather he comfort you in this new manner instead.
Using the above positive reinforcement training tips is a sure-fire way to teach your dog to stop licking you, but it might take some time for your dog to catch on. If you need something that works immediately, you can try a distraction technique. Be aware that distractions might not prevent him from licking you in future sneezing bouts where a distraction isn’t available.
There are many types of distractions, and different dogs will respond best to different distractions. There are two examples below, but you know your dog best, so feel free to test out other types of distractions to see what works well for your family.
If your dog is always dropping his favorite ball into your lap, a toy distraction could work wonders. If his favorite toy is nearby when you sneeze, give it a good toss. As soon as he sees it flying through the air, he’ll abort his mission to lick you in pursuit of the toy.
If your dog is really good at listening to commands and loves to perform tricks, you can give him a command right after you sneeze. If your dog is focused on sitting, lying down, or whatever else you instructed him to do, he will not be able to walk over and lick you.
Again, not every distraction technique will work for every dog, so play around and see what works best for you!
Why It Is Not Submission and Appeasement
If you have read some of our other blog posts, you may have seen other articles discussing why dogs lick in specific situations, such as this one. You may be wondering why other reasons used to explain licking behaviors haven’t been mentioned yet. It’s not an oversight. Dogs have more than one type of licking, and not all of those types are applicable to why they lick when you sneeze.
While dogs do lick to show appeasement and respect, this is not why your dog licks you when you sneeze. The purpose of appeasement licking is for your dog to communicate that she respects you and means no harm. Appeasement licking happens when dogs meet new dogs or people for the first time, or when feeling threatened by another individual.
Your dog already knows you. I highly doubt your dog thinks you turn into a new person after sneezing, which crosses out that option.
While the loud, sudden sound of a sneeze may scare your dog, your body language and the sounds you make while sneezing is not threatening gestures. If anything, your dog will be frightened because he thinks you are hurt, not because he thinks you are about to hurt him. Therefore, there is no reason for him to appease you as he does not see you as a threat.
Why It Is Not Trying To Play
It is known that sneezing is a form of communication for dogs, and that they can even sneeze voluntarily.
Even if your dog does recognize your weird sounding sneeze as a sneeze, licking is not a behavior that communicates wanting to play. If your dog wants to play, he will instead choose to play-bow or even sneeze back at you!
Should You Worry About Your Dog Getting Sick From Licking You?
Fear not, for there is no reason to worry about your dog catching your germs by licking you right after you sneeze. While your furry housemate can catch doggy colds, the American Kennel Club agrees that the chances of your dog catching a cold from you are practically non-existent. This is because many of the viruses that cause colds in human cannot cause colds in dogs. Thank goodness!
Armed with knowledge, you are hopefully now prepared to understand your dog’s weird decision to lick you next time a sneezing fit strikes.
Whether you enjoy being licked or not, you can now at least appreciate the loving intent behind your dog’s actions. And, if you do want to do something about the licking, you know that positive reinforcement is the way to go!
Either way, you can rest assured that for once your dog isn’t purposely trying to be gross. Sure, she’d probably still try to eat any escaped boogers found while licking, but that’s just a bonus prize instead of the main goal.