Few things are likely to get your attention faster than feeling a warm, slobbery dog tongue slide across your bare feet. Whether it’s the occasional surprising jolt or a constant and annoying habit, if your dog is licking your legs and feet, you may be wondering why they’re showing this strange behavior.
So why would your dog lick your legs and feet?
Dogs may lick your legs because to get your attention, communicate their feelings, gather information about you or where you’ve been, or simply because they taste something they like. If you’re tired of your dog always licking your legs, there are some surprisingly simple tactics to change this behavior.
Note that I’m specifically talking about licking behavior, not the nibbling with the front teeth behavior that is also extremely common and this kitty has grown to absolutely love.
Reason 1: Attention-Getting Behavior
Dogs are smart and social animals, and they’re always looking for cues and opportunities to get what they want. If your dog licks your legs every once in a while, they’re probably tasting something that they like (more on that later though). But if they are constantly licking you, this is likely a learned behavior.
Picture this: You’re laid out on your couch, head buried in a good book or your phone. Your dog may have come into the room looking for attention, maybe even carrying a toy. You, attention buried elsewhere, may not even notice that your dog is looking for attention.
What’s he supposed to do? He’s a good boy, and he knows he’s not supposed to bark, but he really wants [insert random dog-desire here], then he spots your bare legs and feet, all sprawled out and vulnerable for a good lick.
So he walks up and gives your toes a wet one, and guess what?
He probably gets your attention immediately. You may even make a fun and exciting noise. “Oh boy!” Your dog thinks. “That sure did work!”
So next time, your dog skips the sad expression and dropping toys at your feet, and goes right for a leg-lick. Over time, you both may just grow used to this being how you greet one another or start an interaction.
If your dog is showing any type of sustained and regular behavior, all you have to do is pay attention to what happens next. Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to spot what reward your dog gets for seemingly random behavior.
If your dog is licking your legs, it’s likely that he’s trying to get your attention, but he may be trying to communicate a more complex emotion, and that may take some more careful observation to pin down the “why.”
Reason 2: Complex Communication
Dogs are social animals and have, like people, developed complex communication signals. Their emotions run nearly the full range of human emotions, and dogs that have strong connections to their owners will likely find ways to express to their owners what they are going through.
There’s no way we could explain all of the possible feelings your dog may be trying to express by licking your legs in only a few words. If you’re at all worried about your dog, it’s probably worth filming the behavior and showing your vet, just to make sure it’s nothing too serious.
But most of the time, your dog is licking your legs to communicate to you, they are trying to express one of two general feelings: Affection or Stress.
It probably comes as no surprise to you that dogs lick to show affection. This is innate behavior in dogs that is reinforced from the moment they are born.
Even within expensive and high-tech breeding programs, the first step when a puppy is born is to place them near their mother’s face. She will sense the presence of her puppy, and start licking.
We know that the mother will lick to clean the puppies and to get their blood moving in their tiny bodies. It’s difficult to scientifically say with surety that the licking is associated with bond-building and affection, but anyone who has seen a mother caring for her newborn pups will probably recognize the sweet, caregiving behavior as not dissimilar to human parents caring for their own newborn babies.
Licking as a sign of caregiving affection is, therefore, one of the first experiences in a dog’s life. Puppies lick faces, dogs lick the air with excitement when their owners return home, they lick each other to groom one another. Dogs simply love to lick!
If your dog is licking your legs and turning his eyes up to you, you’ll probably be able to tell when it’s just a little loving tongue tap. I personally don’t mind the occasional wet kiss from my dog, even if he does choose to show his love between my toes.
Unfortunately, it’s not always a dog’s burning love for you that may drive them to shin licking. Dogs may also lick your legs or feet to communicate to you that they are stressed.
As I’ve mentioned, dogs have sophisticated social systems. This stems back to their roots as wolves, which are pack animals led by an “alpha” and all the other wolves in the pack are subservient to that alpha.
In your home, your dog hopefully views your or another human member of the house as the alpha. A dog licking your legs is a submissive gesture in order to demonstrate that they recognize your place as the leader.
It’s possible though that your dog is responding to some cues you are demonstrating, either on purpose or subconscious, that is causing them to go overboard with demonstrating their submission.
If your dog is licking your legs and seems fearful or anxious, watch their behavior and ask yourself these questions:
- Did I or someone else just punish my dog for bad behavior?
- Did I yell, at the dog or otherwise?
- Was there a loud sound that could scare the dog?
- Could the dog have been injured in some way and thinks I did it? Or that I can help it feel better?
If your dog is showing signs of stress and licking you to the point of annoyance, it’s probably because they are trying to show you submissive, beseeching behavior in order to rectify some wrong that they are perceiving.
Our section on fixing leg-licking behavior below offers some great advice on helping your stressed-out dog lick less, but before we move on to behavior modification tactics, there’s one more pretty obvious reason that your dog may be licking your legs.
Reason 3: Taste
For dogs, unlike most humans, a majority of their sensory perceptions are gathered through their mouths and noses. Dogs have a tremendous sense of taste and smell, so they may be licking your legs because they found something interesting on them.
Before we start troubleshooting what you had for lunch that’s your dog is enjoying off your legs, we first need to talk about how they are tasting and smelling the world you share. What makes their senses of taste and smell so different than ours is a biological edge dogs have over us.
Dogs have an organ in their heads that allows them to simultaneously smell and taste at the same time. You may not have realized it, but it’s impossible for you to both taste and smell at the same time. While smell and taste are closely related in people, they occur one after the other. Dogs take in the whole smell and taste at the same time.
It’s kind of hard to get across the full implications of this biological edge dogs have over us when it comes to taste. A good point of comparison is a cup of tea.
If you put a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of tea, you’ll probably be able to subtly taste it. Drop that same amount of sugar in a swimming pool and you’d never know it was there. But your dog will still be able to both smell and taste that teaspoon of sugar.
Therefore, you shouldn’t be shocked if your dog finds something tasty or interesting on your legs that it wants to put in its mouth. You may have dropped some food on it at lunch today without noticing, or splashed some water on yourself walking through the rain, or… basically anything.
If you encountered it out in the world, your dog will encounter it on your legs when you get home. And frankly, you make your own interesting smells and tastes your dog may want to get in on.
Your dog may just be licking the salt off of your legs. Even if you aren’t particularly sweaty, your body is always secreting oils and moisture-containing salt. Salt isn’t commonly found in nature, so your dog may be licking the salt off your legs to get necessary nutrients or just a salty snack, not unlike a deer licking a salt block (not calling you a salt block, but still).
If you dropped a snowcone on your lap today and your dog is currently licking it off your legs, you probably didn’t need to look up why your dog is licking your legs.
But you may be surprised that your dog may be tasting something on your legs that you didn’t even know was there and won’t be able to wash off. Namely, you.
Without getting too much into the science of it, your dog has an organ in their brain that we don’t, commonly referred to as the Jacobson’s organ. This organ allows dogs to smell animals pheromones.
Your dog may lick your legs in order to taste and smell your pheromones (yep, you have them). This is especially true if you and your dog are closely bonded. A lick and a sniff gives your dog all the info about you that it needs, kind of like your Facebook profile turned to smell.
Yeah, But Why My Legs and Feet?
All of this so far has been about why your dog is licking, but not necessarily why your legs and feet. Sure, a wet one to the toes may get your attention, but you may still be wondering why your dog won’t leave your feet alone!
This is probably just a simple case of anatomy. How tall is your dog? How tall are you? If you’re both standing next to each other, what’s front and center at their eye level? Your legs and feet.
Your dog surely has no particular affection for feet and legs. They are probably just licking those because that’s what they can easily reach. If your dog is very tall, or you are very short, you may be having these same issues with your dog licking your arms or elbows.
Regardless of where your dog’s licks are landing, below are some tips to help discourage this behavior, which can quickly become annoying and is always a little gross.
How To Get Your Dog To Stop Licking Your Feet
First of all, this may be a “pick your battles” kind of situation. There are a lot of reasons your dog may want to lick your legs and feet, and it may not be worth the stress for both of you to try to curb this behavior.
But hey, I get it. If it’s getting out of control, becoming a compulsion for your dog, giving you a nervous twitch, constantly expecting a surprise lick, below are some tips to help get your dog to stop licking your feet.
This may seem counterintuitive, but if your dog is licking you to get your attention, the best way to stop them from licking is to ignore the behavior. Just like how they developed this habit in the first place, they will soon switch up tactics in order to get what they want.
Give Them Other Tools
Ignoring your dog’s licks may be step one, but the next step is to give them some other behavioral tool to get your attention. But make sure it’s something that will work for both of you!
A lot of experts recommend teaching your dog to come up and sit at your feet. When you notice, you give them lots of attention, and yay, your dog sits pretty for you.
But if your dog is trying to pull your attention away from your phone or a good book, sitting pretty is likely just going to be frustrating for your dog and drive them back to their old habits of toe-licking.
Instead, considering teaching them a fun, demonstrative trick, like standing on their hind legs. This is a fun activity to do with your dog and will almost surely get your attention while sparing you a slobbery lick.
If your dog is licking you because they are either stressed or trying to show affection, if you want them to stop, the tactic is the same: give them reassurance.
A dog showing affection through licking your legs is trying to communicate their love to you, like patting a loved one on the back when you walk by. Pet them back, rub their heads and let them know that you love them too. This is a communication tool for your dog, so communicate back to them.
A dog who is licking because of stress needs reassurance even more. The simple fact is they are probably afraid that you, the alpha in the group, are disappointed with them or are going to do something they don’t like. Rub their heads, coo at them, and use your sweet doggy voice.
Regardless of why, keep in mind that your dog is trying to communicate with you. If you love your dog, it’s worth, at least at first, meeting them where they are and communicate back to them, and slowly move towards different means of communicating besides licking.
Distract and Redirect
Put that powerful nose of theirs to good use! If your dog is chasing you down after a jog trying to lap up your salty sweat, consider giving them a salty chew toy or treat with peanut butter.
Giving your dog a plush toy or blanket to carry around with them and love on is another good way to distract your dog from taking out all of its love on your legs.
If your dog just seems to like licking as an activity, try this licking pad on Amazon to save yourself and your house from a constant tonguing. You just smear a little peanut butter or even regular dog food on the pad and let your dog lick away.
Leg-Licking: The Final Word
Hopefully, I’ve helped you identify the “why” behind your dog’s leg and feet licking and maybe even some helpful tactics to help curb this potentially annoying behavior.
Keep in mind that the relationship between you and your dog is special, and it’s important to make sure that whatever changes you’re expecting from your dog are realistic and not too stressful for anyone.
Leg licking can be a tough habit to break, and when expecting any behavior change, in dogs or people, it’s important to keep in mind that to change what’s coming out, you first need to change what’s going in. Observe your dog, keep in mind why they are licking you, and you should slowly be able to deprogram their leg-licking ways.