Licking, while common, can be difficult for owners to understand and control. Learning why dogs tend to lick could help you better understand your pet and give you ways to limit this behaviour if it turns out to be problematic.
Dogs lick each other
When dogs lick each other, they do so to socialize, it goes back to their early evolution. Social grooming begins very early in a dog's life, when the mother licks her newborn puppies to clean them, encourage them to relieve themselves and comfort them. And young puppies lick their mother's face to encourage her to regurgitate food to feed them. Later, this is a way for your dog to politely greet a friend (usually only dogs that know each other lick each other) and show them that they are not a threat.
Dogs lick to build strong bonds, forge alliances and friendships.
Why do dogs lick people?
When your dog licks you or other humans, it's usually a friendly and social gesture, like when he greets other dogs, and is a sign of affection, it is their love language. It's his way of saying "Hello! I like you!" or “I'm so glad to see you!" and bond with you. Of course your dog might also lick you because they like the sweaty salty or freshly showered taste of your skin, and if you have food around your mouth or on your hands, your dog might also lick you just to taste it!
Dogs also lick to stimulate play or affection.
What does it mean when a dog licks your hand constantly?
Licking your hand is typical canine behaviour that has its origins all the way back when dogs evolved from wolves in the wild. When your dog licks your hand, it's a sign of submission to you as the leader of their pack, and it eases the stress of separation anxiety if you've been absent. If you notice your dog licking excessively, it could be a sign of anxiety (see our post regarding separation anxiety in dogs).
Is it safe?
Dogs licking you is overall a sign of affection and it is absolutely fine, but not very hygienic.
When dog saliva touches intact human skin, especially in a healthy person, it is extremely unlikely to cause any problems, as there will be very little absorption through the skin.
However you should ensure your dog doesn't lick you or young children on the face or mouth, as they carry many bacterias, parasites and zoonotic organisms which can spread from animals to humans through licking and which can be very harmful to humans. These include Salmonella, Pasteurella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Leptospira, Giardia, ringworm, and hookworm. These can cause diarrhoea and even send people to the hospital.
Added to these, just think of all that dogs put in their mouths and eat! Therefore always wash your hands well after being licked by or touching your dog.
How to reduce your dog's licking
There is a way to limit your dog's problematic licking, whether he licks you or your guests a little too much, wants to lick you on the face, or of course if your guests don't like to be licked by dogs at all. You can fix it by following the tips below:
- Be consistent. If you let your dog lick you at some times but not at others, he won't see the difference or understand that you're trying to limit this behaviour. It is therefore important to forbid your dog to lick you each time he tries to do so and to apply this instruction by leaving the premises or by ceasing to give him attention. This is especially good if you want to stop your dog licking you entirely.
- Set boundaries. As seen previously, letting your dog lick your hands is safe as long as you wash your hands straight afterwards, but letting him lick your face or mouth is not. Therefore you need to set this boundary with your dog, from a young age if you want to allow him to lick only your hands but not your face.
- Give your dog an acceptable option. A treat-filled toy or a new bone (be sure to ask your vet which products they recommend) can help control your dog's licking by encouraging him to adopt another more appropriate behaviour instead, such as chewing. This is particularly useful if you let your dog lick you but not your guests.
Watch the video by tailored dog food brand Tails.com filmed at DogStroll Doggy Daycare center.