You may love your dog, but not all of us like slobbery kisses from our furry canine friends. Many pet parents believe their dogs lick them to show affection, and while this may be true some of the time, there are also many other functions for licking.
So, why do dogs lick us? And are there different reasons for why dogs lick your hands, face, ears, feet, or legs?
- Dogs lick people (including our faces, hands, legs, ears, and feet) for many different reasons.
- This behavior can mean something different depending on where your dog is licking you.
- While licking is a normal dog behavior, in some cases it can indicate a medical or behavioral issue.
Why Do Dogs Lick People?
Licking is a natural instinct in dogs. Studies have shown that licking releases endorphins in a dog’s brain. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that make dogs (and us!) feel calmer and more relaxed. This then leads to a release of dopamine, another neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and motivation.
There are many things that dogs lick—some more repulsive than others. So, what does it mean when a dog licks you? There isn’t one straight answer. Dogs lick people for a variety of reasons, including affection, communication, grooming, exploration, attention, and taste.
Dogs Learn to Lick as Puppies
Mother dogs lick their pups to clean and stimulate them as soon as they are born. For the first few weeks of their lives, puppies are prompted to urinate and defecate by mom’s licking. So, dogs learn very early that tongues are useful tools in communicating and interacting with the world around them.
Puppies lick to appease older dogs, including their mom, and clear the way for safe social interactions. Pups will lick one another to show affection, and to comfort themselves and sometimes their littermates.
Dogs Lick People to Enhance Smell
Licking also enhances yourdog’s sense of smell.Like humans, dogs can taste bitter, salty, sweet, and sour. But due to their small number of taste buds, they actually use their sense of smell far more than their sense of taste when deciding what to lick or eat. This is likely why dogs enjoy licking areas of our bodies that tend to have strong tastes and smells: our hands, faces, ears, and feet.
To understand why dogs really enjoy licking certain areas of our bodies, let’s take a quick look at the anatomy of human sweat. We have two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine.
Eccrine glands secrete a thin, odorless, clear fluid made of salt, protein, etc., and are found in large numbers on the soles of the feet, the palms, the forehead, the cheeks, and in the armpits.
Apocrine glands secrete a thicker fluid that reacts with the bacteria on your skin to create body odor and are found in the armpits and groin, but also in the ear canals, eyelids, and nostrils.
With all of this fun physiology, how could dogs resist licking parts of us that contain so much scent and taste?
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Hands?
As you move through the world, your hands collect smells and flavors that your dog wants to investigate once you come home. You might touch other people or animals, and you very likely touch food. Your hands are like a roadmap for your pup that tells the story of your day, and they want to taste and smell every “destination” your hands visited.
The palms of your hands also sweat, leaving a salty residue on your skin for your dog to enjoy.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Face?
Along with your hands, your face gets constant exposure to the world, so it picks up a lot of interesting smells and tastes. Also, you’re likely to touch your face regularly,giving your dog even morereasons to lick your face!
Your face contains both types of sweat glands. Eccrine glands on your cheeks and forehead leave a salty flavor many dogs are certain to enjoy. But your eyelids and nostrils contain apocrine glands, which give those areas a mild but distinct odor easily identified by your dog’s super-powered nose.
Thanks to the food you eat, your lips and mouth contain all sorts of attractive smells and tastes for your dog. This may explain why some pups really want to plant a slobbery kiss right on your lips after you eat.
Aside from all the scents and flavors your face offers, licking your face is likely an instinctual behavior for your dog. Dogs lick each other's faces for mutual grooming, affection, and to communicate appeasement or harmlessness. Pet parents who love when their dogs lick them may also reinforce the behavior with their excited responses.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Ears?
Your dog may be licking your ears to taste them, keep them clean, or possibly to show you some extra love.
The apocrine glands in your ear canals secrete a thick fluid that creates an odor when it mixes with the natural bacteria on your skin. Combined with the ceruminous glands, which create earwax, your ears offer a collection of enticing smells and tastes.
Dogs lick each other’s ears to groom one another. And because it’s a very vulnerable interaction, dogs that allow this likely feel very safe with the other dog.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Feet?
All of those eccrine glands on the soles of your feet create a lot of sweat, and that sweat creates a lot of salt. Your feet and toes offer a salty treat for your pup—and if you’re ticklish, it also makes for a fun game between you and your dog.
If you smile or laugh as your dog licks your feet, you could be providing positive reinforcement for the behavior. They quickly learn that licking your feet gets them attention from you. This may not only extend the licking session, but make it more likely to happen when your sockless feet emerge in the future.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Legs?
If you’re fresh from the shower, your dog may want to lick the water droplets from your skin. This doesn’t mean your dog is thirsty—rather, they’re interested in all the smells and tastes you’re bringing out of the shower with you.
Shampoo, body wash, and shaving creams all leave an interesting scent and taste on your skin. Nicking yourself with a razor may also attract some attention, since dogs also lick to keep wounds clean.
If the leg-licking has nothing to do with shower time, it could be a lotion you applied, salt on your skin after exercise, or something completely random you weren’t even aware you came into contact with.
When Is Licking a Problem?
Dogs lick for many reasons. They may lick out of boredom, in which case increasing enrichment could reduce the behavior. Activities like lick mats can provide an outlet for bored dogs who like to use their tongues.
But there are times licking indicates a problem behaviorally and/or medically. Behaviorally, licking that occurs frequently in response to an event but is difficult to interrupt can be a sign of anxiety. Licking a person excessively can mean that the dog is not comfortable with that person and is either trying to sooth themselves, gather more intel, or move the person away.
Licking can be a canine calming signal or a displacement behavior. When a dog feels stressed, anxious, or conflicted about what to do, they may use a behavior to buy sometime and communicate that they are not ready to engage. Licking, because of the physiological effect on endorphins and dopamine, can be used to sooth themselves in anxiety-provoking social situations. It is also a common behavior involved in compulsive disorders.
Medically, chronic licking—not just grooming—of a specific area of their bodies can be evidence of allergies, infections, or pain. If they are licking everything, like couches, rugs, or floors, there may be GI issues with your companion.
If you recognize any problematic forms of licking, seek help from a professional. Reach out to your vet to determine whether there is a medical issue first. Then, a certified behavior consultant can lend their expertise to take a look at the behavior. Complex cases would benefit from contacting a veterinary behaviorist as soon as possible.
Featured image: iStock.com/Art_rich
Kasey Stopp, DVM, CVA
Dr. Kasey Stopp was born in rural Illinoisbut spent most of her life in Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended the University of Cincinnati where...
Your dog may lick you to say they love you, to get your attention, to help soothe themselves if they're stressed, to show empathy or because you taste good to them! Excessive licking can sometimes be a sign that your dog is anxious, uncomfortable or in pain.Is it good for a dog to lick your wounds? ›
Simply speaking, no, you shouldn't allow your dog to lick your wound under any circumstances. Your dog's mouth is often a dirty place. Licking can introduce bacteria, which can lead to infections. Licking can also irritate your wound more since a dog's tongue isn't exactly the gentlest thing to rub on your wound.What does a dog think when you lick it? ›
So, if you lick your dog, it is akin to a dominant pack member licking a submissive dog. You, therefore, create confusion when you behave in this manner. Confusion raises levels of frustration and fear and will eventually result in aggression.What does it mean when a dog grabs your hand and licks it? ›
Affection – Licking is a sign of affection. Your dog might lick your hands and face because they love you! Licking might feel good to your dog as it can release endorphins. Some experts also say that in addition to affection, licking is a sign of submission.How do I know my dog loves me? ›
- Soft eye contact. Eye contact can mean many things, but dogs are naturally quite hesitant to make eye contact. ...
- Tail wagging. Your dog's tail can display a whole range of emotions and a wag from them doesn't always necessarily mean they are happy. ...
- Cuddling (on their terms) ...
- Happy greeting.
Just as humans stare into the eyes of someone they adore, dogs will stare at their owners to express affection. In fact, mutual staring between humans and dogs releases oxytocin, known as the love hormone. This chemical plays an important role in bonding and boosts feelings of love and trust.Why do dogs lick your feet? ›
Your dog licks you to show they care, to get attention, to understand you better and because they enjoy it. However, the reason they may prefer your feet could be because they're bursting with scent information that tells them a lot about you, where you've been and what you've been doing.Why does my dog lick me when I'm sick? ›
Your dog wants to make you feel better, comfort you, and lower your stress levels when you're sick and this is how they attempt to do just that.Should I let my dog lick my face? ›
However, a dog's saliva and pathogens can be absorbed more easily through the mucous membranes of a person's nose, mouth and eyes. Though illnesses transmitted this way are rare, Dr. Kaplan said it was best to avoid having your dog lick those parts of your face.What do dogs hate to lick? ›
At the top of the list? Citrus. Most dogs can't stand the taste and smell of oranges, lemons, and grapefruit. Here's why — plus, how to use their dislike of citrus to your advantage.
Needless to say, licking your dog back is highly discouraged. Not only will it create confusion, it will also put your relationship in an unfamiliar place or an unchartered territory and even weaken your bond. Dogs communicate through non-verbal cues that are different than a human's way of communicating.Do dogs see licks as kisses? ›
A dog who licks you is showing you that they love you, so it's no surprise many people call them "dog kisses". It's a natural action for dogs — a way for them to express how they feel about you. Charlotte adds: "It's important that you don't force a dog to give you 'kisses or cuddles'.What does it mean when a dog puts his paw on your arm? ›
Or, perhaps they want a treat, a few pats on the head, some attention, or maybe a trip outside for playtime or a potty break. “When your dog puts a paw on you, it is most often a sign of communication, and it doesn't always mean the same thing,” says Dr. Mary Burch, Ph.What does it mean when a dog yawns? ›
In the language of dogs, the yawn is often used as a calming signal. It's a way of saying, I've had enough and my patience is running out. For example, in a training session, your dog may yawn to deal with frustration and to give himself a mental break.Do dogs pick a favorite person? ›
The short answer is yes, most dogs do have favorite people. As social animals, dogs tend to be happiest and healthiest with company. And because domesticated pets depend on their people to meet virtually all their needs—food, shelter, and even access to the bathroom—these dog-human bonds are strong.Why do dogs follow you to the bathroom? ›
Dogs who follow you to the bathroom
As their owner, you are the one who meets most of their needs, including for affection, so following is a sign of this attachment. They may also be waiting for routines they enjoy such as a walk or dinner time.
Dr. Brian Hare, who has written books about canine cognition, told People that dogs have emotions and feelings just like we do. Here's what he said about love: "Yes, your dog knows how much you love him!Why does my dog follow me and not my husband? ›
Often, this is simply a case of access, or lack of it. If one person spends more time at home with the dog, naturally the dog will want to see and spend time with the other partner, too. When the absent partner rewards that behavior by handing out treats upon return, reinforcement and hardwiring occurs.Can dogs sense illness? ›
Because of their incredible sense of smell, dogs can detect subtle changes in human scent caused by disease. They can smell out illnesses such as cancer. It turns out that cancer and other diseases or infections have a smell. Chemicals called volatile organic compounds are produced by cancer cells.Why does my dog sit in front of me facing away? ›
If you are trying to get your dog to face you when approaching and it turns slightly away from you or seems to ignore you as it approaches, your dog may be communicating strong discomfort with you. A dog facing you head on and making eye contact with you is a display of dominance, especially if teeth are bared.
In recent times, research has shown that: Dogs can recognize emotions in people's facial expressions. They're able to distinguish emotional facial expressions from neutral expressions, and they can tell happy faces from angry ones - just from photos of faces. Dogs can sniff out human emotions by smell alone.Why do dogs like belly rubs? ›
Dogs, like humans, also release endorphins and oxytocin through methods of touch, so rubbing a dog's belly can help with bonding and affection. Ultimately, dogs like belly rubs because they feel good!Do dogs know their names? ›
The short answer is yes, dogs do know their names. On average, dogs can understand 165 words. More intelligent dogs can learn 250 words. If your dog is trained to recognize their name as such, they understand that you are speaking to them specifically when you use it.Can dogs sense pain in humans? ›
Similarly, dogs can tell if you're feeling pain or discomfort, and may try to soothe your inflamed joints with licking and cuddles. Our furry friends are very observant of our body language and facial expressions, and notice when their humans aren't feeling well just by viewing any subtle changes in our daily routines.Why are dogs so clingy? ›
Dogs are clingy for three basic reasons. Your dog may have great anxiety about being left alone. Various illnesses may cause the dog to seek comfort from your companionship. And a female dog about to be in heat may tend to stick closer to her owner.Should you let your dog sleep with you? ›
Studies have shown many physical and mental health advantages to owning a pet, and co-sleeping increases the amount of time spent with that pet, potentially increasing those benefits. For example, co-sleeping can increase the feelings of comfort and companionship your dog provides.Are dog licks clean? ›
A dog's saliva is not cleaner than ours.
One study found that only 16.4% of identified microbes are shared between humans and dogs. Researchers discovered that dogs have a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gulae, which is known to cause periodontal disease.
Dogs don't just tolerate human touch – most thrive on it. In fact, the way we touch our dogs profoundly impacts the way they view and interact with the world.What smell do dogs love? ›
The methodology of observing the dogs freely exploring the experimental area allowed us to determine the smells that were the most attractive to them (food, beaver clothing). Our study shows that dogs interacted more frequently with the scents of blueberries, blackberries, mint, rose, lavender, and linalol.What smell dogs hate the most? ›
- Citrus Fruits (such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits)
- Fresh Herbs (such as basil, mint, rosemary, and thyme)
- Household Cleaners.
- Strong Perfumes or Colognes.
- Nail Polish and Remover.
Citrus scents top the list of smells your dog probably hates. The scent of lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits is strong and unpleasant for your dog. For this reason, you can use citrus scents as a dog repellant in off-limits parts of the house. Their noses are irritated by the strength of citrus.Do dogs lick you to taste you? ›
feel calmer and more relaxed. Dogs lick people for a variety of reasons, including affection, communication, grooming, exploration, attention, and taste.What breed of dog licks people a lot? ›
Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Pit Bulls and Poodles all tend to be frequent lickers. As for smaller breeds, the Bichon Frise, the Pug and the Chihuahua are also prone to people-licking.Do dogs like getting kissed? ›
Because they love affection from us, most dogs do like being kissed. However, they don't like the act of being kissed but rather that we give them attention and show affection.Do dogs like being hugged? ›
Experts in dog behavior believe that, in general, dogs do not like being embraced. However, every dog has a unique personality. Some may dislike hugs more strongly than others, and some may actually adore them. The closest thing our furry family members do to a hug is something referred to as 'standing over'.Why do dogs tilt their heads? ›
A dog tilts his head to show that he is engaged much the way a human would nod during a conversation to indicate that he is listening. Social dogs that enjoy human interaction usually tilt their heads more often to encourage the continuation of the conversation and prolong the human contact.Why do dogs sniff you? ›
When dogs sniff people they are gaining all sorts of information about us. They know if we are familiar or a stranger. They know which scents we have attracted while we've been away. They know if we are experiencing changes in hormones, such as those that occur during pregnancy.Does a dog trust you if they sleep on you? ›
Cuddles & Sleepy Snuggles 💤
Dogs choose to sleep where they feel most comfortable and at ease, so if your dog enjoys sleeping in your bed, or likes to snuggle up to you for a nap, they feel trust in you that they will be safe to do so.
Do Dogs Like When You Talk to Them? Yes! Research published in Animal Cognition found that both puppies and adult dogs are attentive to the high-pitch voice we use with babies and the more even-toned language used with adults.What colors do dogs see? ›
Human eyes have three different types of cones, which allows us to identify combinations of red, blue, and green. Dogs, on the other hand, have only two types of cones, which means they can only discern blue and yellow. As a result, dogs are red-green colour blind. How dogs see colour.
Why do dogs like to sleep with you? If your pup likes to sleep with you, it means they feel secure and comfortable with you. When your dog was a puppy, they cuddled up with their littermates for warmth and comfort, so now they want to do the same with their people.Do dogs sleep with their favorite person? ›
A dog who needs a lot of attention and affection, for example, will run to the person who provides the most belly rubs and affectionate ear rubs. If a family member is stand-offish, your family dog will most likely be less interested in hanging out with him, and more likely to sleep with the more affectionate person.Why does my dog push his head into me? ›
Some dogs show their love with a wagging tail or jumping, and others show affection by burying their head in the person. The burrowing makes it easier for your pup to smell you, and since their smell is their strongest scent, it helps them bond with you.Can dogs see themselves in mirror? ›
Although dogs can't identify themselves in the mirror, they still have some level of self-awareness and ace other self-recognition tests. They can recognize their own odor, and recall memories of specific events, Earth.com reports.What does it mean when a dog sneezes? ›
Dogs are prone to sneezing and use it to “talk” to one another. They also try to communicate with their human families the same way. Dogs may sneeze when they are excited, happy, or showing submission to other dogs, for example.Why do dogs shake? ›
Dogs shake and tremble for all kinds of reasons -- excitement, pain, old age, even nausea. Shivering and trembling may be symptoms of something serious -- like poisoning, kidney disease, or injury.Why does my dog love me so much? ›
Other studies have discovered dogs (especially females) pick up on and mirror human emotions and this bond deepens over time. Canine brains have even been known to release oxytocin, the hormone partly responsible for empathy, trust and love, while making eye contact with their favorite people.Why does my dog lick my legs? ›
It is a way for dogs to show affection towards the owner, but also as a sign of submission and fearlessness. The leg licking motion is often also a sign of gratitude. Dogs lick legs because they are grateful to the owner for giving them food and attention.How do dogs pick their favorite person? ›
But most dogs tend to bond to the person who gives them the most attention. For example, in a family with two parents and two kids, the dog may favor the parent who fills their bowl every morning and takes them for a walk every evening. In addition, physical affection solidifies the bond between dog and person.Do dogs know we love them? ›
Yes, your dog knows how much you love him! Dogs and humans have a very special relationship, where dogs have hijacked the human oxytocin bonding pathway normally reserved for our babies. When you stare at your dog, both your oxytocin levels go up, the same as when you pet them and play with them.
When you kiss your dog, you may notice signs that indicate they know that the kiss is a gesture of affection. As puppies, this is not something that dogs would recognize, although they would feel you doing it. However, as they get older they associate the kisses and cuddles with you being happy with them.Is a dog licking a form of dominance? ›
Yes, Licking Is A Sign Of Dominance
Dogs can attempt to show dominance towards a dog or human by aggressively licking them. This is a determined, deliberate act, and is uninvited or inappropriate for the situation. This type of dog licking indicate an assertion of dominance and control.
Similarly, some breeds tend to kiss less than others. Khuly said that Arctic breeds, like Huskies, Malamutes, Samoyeds and American Eskimos, don't lick much by nature (though they can learn the behavior).Is dog licking a dominant behavior? ›
Adult dogs lick as a sign of deference or submissiveness to a dominant pack member. The dog doing the licking usually lowers its body to make itself smaller, and looks up, adding to the effect of subordinate behavior.Do dog like to be hugged? ›
Experts in dog behavior believe that, in general, dogs do not like being embraced. However, every dog has a unique personality. Some may dislike hugs more strongly than others, and some may actually adore them. The closest thing our furry family members do to a hug is something referred to as 'standing over'.Why do dogs like their belly rubbed? ›
This calming sensation triggers a specific reaction in their brain that responds to hair follicle stimulation. Dogs, like humans, also release endorphins and oxytocin through methods of touch, so rubbing a dog's belly can help with bonding and affection. Ultimately, dogs like belly rubs because they feel good!