Almost every dog owner has experienced their dog giving them a big, slobbery lick on the face or hand. Some people love it, others hate it, but it's a nearly universal part of dog ownership. But why does man's best friend seem to enjoy licking humans so much? While the full answer is still a bit of a mystery, canine behaviorists have some pretty good ideas. If you've ever wondered why dogs lick people, read on to discover the answers and learn more about your dog's behavior.
Most people casually refer to licks as kisses, and they're not far off. The primary motivation behind it seems to be a visible sign of affection and trust. Even wolves lick each other as a form of mutual grooming, and licking a new member of the pack is a sure sign that the new wolf has been accepted. Since dogs bond closely with humans, many experts believe they're just transferring the same behavior over to their two-legged family members.
Part of the reason dogs lick people may be rooted in instinctive behaviors. Wolf cubs lick their mothers' mouths to signal that they're hungry or thirsty and that behavior may remain to a small degree in modern dogs. Mother wolves and dogs also lick their puppies to keep them clean and to stimulate urination and defecation when they're very young, so it may be an instinctive sign of protection and love.
Some dogs are afraid of humans, whether that's due to bad experiences in the past or just a lack of experience with new people. These dogs may use licking as an appeasement measure, which means they're trying to show that they're not a threat or challenger. Dogs also use this type of licking with each other. For example, puppies will often approach unfamiliar adult dogs by licking their muzzles to show that they're safe.
It's hard to ignore a dog slobbering all over you, and many dogs learn that lesson very quickly. Some will intentionally use it to get attention from their owners whenever they want. If your dog only seems to lick you when you're not paying attention or when your dog wants something from you, he may be using licking as attention-seeking behavior. Even if you scold him, you may still be accidentally rewarding him by giving him the attention he desires.
Licking is a soothing behavior for many dogs, so some dogs will begin to do it compulsively if they live with a high level of fear or anxiety overall. This type is licking is usually somewhat obvious, as it isn't just a couple of friendly or playful licks. Instead, anxious licking tends to be a steady, repeated behavior that the dog does for long periods. If your dog engages in this kind of licking, you may want to talk to your vet and trainer to find ways to relieve his anxiety.
As strange as it may sound, your dog may simply like the way you taste. Dogs are often attracted to salty flavors, so slightly sweaty human skin may be pretty flavorful. They also have scent receptors inside their mouths, so licking you may allow your dog to smell you better. Dogs tend to enjoy immersing themselves in scents they enjoy, so take it as a compliment. If you use scented lotions or soaps, your dog may also be licking to try to taste those. However, be careful about allowing that, as some may contain ingredients that are harmful to dogs.
Although licking can be unpleasant for some people, it is usually safe to allow your dog to lick you. However, dogs do carry bacteria in their mouths, so it's best to keep them away from any irritated skin, wounds or other sensitive areas. People with compromised immune systems may want to discuss it with their doctors before letting dogs lick them. Some people are also allergic to dog saliva, so a dog licking them can cause hives, itchiness or, in extreme cases, anaphylaxis. If you enjoy letting your pet dog lick you, though, it's generally fine to indulge in the occasional dog kisses.
The question of whether dogs should be allowed to lick people is hotly debated among dog trainers. Some don't believe it should ever be allowed since some people don't enjoy it, but most dog trainers don't think it is always bad. However, if your dog licks you excessively or is rude and aggressive about licking, like jumping on you to get to your face, that may be bad behavior that needs to be addressed.
If you want your dog to stop licking people, there are a few strategies you can take. The easiest is simply to ignore your dog since most dogs lick people to get attention. If that doesn't work, try teaching a command that makes it impossible for your dog to lick you. That can be something as simple as telling your dog to lay down by your feet.
Although gentle scolding can be effective in discouraging dogs from licking, some experts advise against it. Licking is usually a sign of affection, so it may be harmful to your bond with your dog if you scold him for it.
Some dogs just aren't big fans of licking people, and that's okay. It doesn't mean that your dog doesn't love you or isn't affectionate. Your dog probably has just learned other ways to show that affection. Some breeds are known to be more standoffish and tend not to lick as much, and other dogs may have not experienced much licking as puppies and so don't consider it a major sign of affection the way most dogs do.
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