There are two types of dogs in this world – those who lick you and those who lick you excessively! Licking plays a significant role in dogs’ ability to communicate, but just what it is that they are communicating is the important part. Why does your dog lick you? Well, for many reasons:
1. As a greeting or sign of affection
When you wake up in the morning, return home from the great outdoors, or simply step in from the other room, your dog is probably there to give you a good, solid lick. Whether it’s a bold, unapologetic lick on the face or a quick, furtive lick on the hand, this is your dog’s way of saying, Hey! You’re here! I’m here! We’re here! And I love you! He’s happy to see you and wants to show you some lurve.
2. They have something to tell you
Dogs lick as a way to communicate something important: I’m hungry… that sandwich looks delicious! or Hurry up, I need to go outside! or You look friendly. Can we be friends? or Yes, you ARE the boss. Licking is often used as the primary way your dog communicates with you, so when he licks you, before dismissing his slobbery call as mere shenanigans, rather pay attention to what he’s trying to tell you. Responding appropriately will reinforce his use of licking as means of communicating important information to you.
3. To gather sensory information
Dogs use their mouths as their primary gatherer of sensory information – both for touch and taste. A lick can be used to explore a person: Who are you? What do you want? Is there a cookie in that hand?
If a dog mainly licks your hand, it’s because the hand is normally the most accessible part of the human body at their tongue level. And since their tongue contains millions of nerves and sensory cells, a lick can tell them a lot about who and what they have just encountered. Using this information as well as their sense of sight and hearing, they can then decide how to proceed.
4. To get attention
A lick to get attention is usually a positively reinforced behaviour. Your dog has learnt that a lick could solicit a big smile, a hug, a pat and – ooh, ooh, ooh! – even a treat from you! While this is closely linked to a lick being a sign of affection, licking to get attention is a slightly different behaviour. It’s a solicitation – a request for engagement with Sir Lickalot. By returning the favour and giving your dog attention, you are reinforcing the idea that licking works and your dog will continue to do it whenever he wants your attention.
5. To heal you
Dogs use their tongues to remove bacteria and dirt from their wounds. They might also lick themselves on their painful joints as a way to mitigate the pain and stimulate warmth or healing.
This is instinctive behaviour, so when they encounter a cut or a graze on you, they may want to lick it for the same reasons. While the intention is good, the outcome may not be so wholesome. It is true that dogs’ saliva contains antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, but their mouths are also harbours for other bacteria, so by licking your cuts and scrapes, they may be introducing harmful bacteria to the open wound, which could lead to infection. It’s best to treat your own wounds with anti-bacterial wipes or creams and to discourage your dog from licking you better.
If your dog’s licking bothers you, one way to discourage it is to ignore him when he licks you. While this may be difficult at first (because, I mean, just look at that face), you can retrain him to seek attention from you in other ways by only rewarding non-licking behaviour. If you struggle to reset his attention-seeking, speak to a behaviourist to find ways that will work for you and your pup.