Learning about animal behavior and psychology is a rewarding part of pet ownership. Today, we’re talking about one pet behavior that some adore and others can’t stand. We’re answering the question, “Why do dogs lick us?”
When a dog licks you, it usually stems from their affection for you and the way they perceive your relationship and the family dynamic. However, there are many reasons why your dog likes to lick you, other people, and other objects throughout the day.
Dogs navigate the world through sense of taste and smell
You already know that taste and smell are two important senses for mammals, and probably that some of your dog’s senses are more powerful than the average human’s. So, it might be no surprise to learn that dogs smell and taste objects to learn things about the outside world.
One reason dogs love to lick their human friends is because licking helps them detect stimuli that give them information about both you and your day.
Dogs tend to lick parts of your skin that get the most exposure or accumulate the most interesting smells throughout your day. These include places like your nose, mouth, and ears. As you move about your day, you’re probably breathing different air, eating and drinking, and collecting interesting oils of your body and in the nose, mouth, and ears.
Similarly, your hands touch a lot of foreign surfaces and objects, and hopefully some delicious food and drinks each day. When your pet is smelling and licking your hands, they’re usually collecting information about your daily activities. Licking hands and feet can also be a way for your dog to learn about how you experienced the day since they can smell and taste sweat, hormones, and the byproducts of different endocrine responses you had throughout the day.
In short, your dog is an excellent and adorable private investigator, and they want to know as much about your life and the world as possible!
Licking is part of dog pack behavior
If you’re a dog owner, you probably also know that dogs instinctively operate as part of a social hierarchy or “pack” with social power dynamics. You may also know that some dogs are more submissive than others, and show submission in a number of ways.
This is all to explain that licking is part of your dog’s social behavior, and when they lick you, it’s often a sign of affection and submission. This is especially true if your dog licks your face.
It won’t surprise you to learn that your dog sees you as their ally, their parent, or even as their much bigger sibling. Dogs lick their people to show that you’re one of their pack, they value you, and they’re interested in learning about your world.
Dogs learn licking as a social behavior when they’re puppies. Licking releases endorphins that calm your dog, which is one of many reasons your dog’s mother licked them as a puppy.
Sometimes when your dog licks you, they’re just reassuring you and themselves that your pack bond is strong. Not only do they want to indulge in the scents of your daily activities, but they also want to welcome you back.
Attention & anxiety licking in dogs
Because licking releases endorphins, your dog will sometimes lick you or himself in order to reduce their or your anxiety. Dogs are very sensitive to the emotions of their humans, including emotions like anxiety, irritability, and joy.
If your dog begins licking you randomly, he or she might just be anxious about something or someone that they can’t communicate about. If you suspect your pup might be anxious, watch for other anxious behaviors and potential triggers for anxiety like the ones on these lists.
If your dog appears calm but approaches you with licking behaviors, they could simply be asking for your attention. Whether out of boredom, loneliness, or sheer adoration for their human pals, sometimes dogs seek social interaction simply for the sake of interacting with you. Licking can be used to communicate a need, including the need to just interact with you.
Why does my dog lick the carpet and other objects?
If your dog’s licking behaviors are disgusting or distracting to you, you probably notice that some dogs lick objects, too. When you see your dog licking the carpet, the kitchen floor, the trash can, or even dirtier surfaces, you now know that your dog is investigating interesting smells even further, or savoring a tasty flavor from last night’s dinner.
How to stop your dog from licking you
If you’re one of those pet parents who can’t stand the sounds, smell, or sensation of being licked by your dog, we get it. It doesn’t make you less of a parent if you’re not willing to partake in your pup’s social behaviors and terms of endearment.
Training your pup to forego this behavior can take some time, depending on age and other factors. The good news is, the retraining process is pretty simple, thanks to what we currently believe about dog psychology.
No matter why your dog licks you, when they do, they’re looking for a response from you. Any change in your behavior is a win for your dog, so yelling, swatting away, or shaming your dog for licking may not discourage them entirely. In order to change their behavior, you’ll need to learn to stop reacting to it.
Having no reaction whatsoever is a simple way to retrain your dog’s social behaviors, though it may take time for some.
What does it mean when a dog licks you?
So, what does it mean when a dog licks you?
Now you know that licking serves a number of important purposes for dogs, including communication, exploration, learning, tasting new flavors, and even reinforcing social bonds with the people they love.
While you get to know your unique dog and their social tendencies, try to be patient. Remember that dogs that lick you are trying to build bonds with you, and are showing you both affection and dependence. Your dog knows less about your unique social habits than you do about theirs and always wants to see you happy and calm.