It is a truth universally acknowledged that any dog within tongue-licking distance of a human being, if given half the chance, will lick them. My friend’s adorable springer spaniel doesn’t even care if he gets your skin or not, he’ll just lick your clothes. You stretch your legs out past where he’s sitting on the floor, and out comes the tongue, lick lick lick your jeans, and his cute little face looking up at you content with himself that this is the most normal behavior in the world – to a dog.
Whether you have a dog or not, you probably have been licked by one at some stage in your life. Because that is what dogs do. They lick things; themselves, other dogs, the cat, the furniture, the walls, the grass, and of course, you.
But why do dogs lick you? Big slobbery, loving, scold-defying licks, whether you like it or not. Well there are a number of reasons.
The most common reason is because they love you and this is how they show it. Licking is their way of expressing affection; it’s their way of giving you a kiss. Dogs are very affectionate animals and they love nothing more than showing you how much they love you. Licking also releases endorphins and it makes them feel relaxed to sit licking something, the rhythm relaxes them. So licking is a comfort thing to do. It makes them feel safe, secure and happy.
We taste salty. Our skin produces salt when we sweat, and as we rush about at our day-to-day activities, we invariably sweat. So if we end up with a thin layer of salty sweat on our skin, our dog gets a good dose of it when he licks us, so we taste great to him. Also gross, but there may also be tiny food particles on our skin that taste good, and the way our skin tastes can give clues as to where we have been. So your dog might just be nosey, and want to investigate any unusual tastes or smells on his human companion.
Dogs’ tongues and noses contain special receptors that can process information about people. Do you sometimes notice that your dog is in tune with how you are feeling? It might be because he is. He’s found it out by licking you, gathering up the information he got from it and processing it through his little doggy receptors. Remember the scene in Marley and Me when they come home from the hospital after losing their baby? Marley is usually jumping around like a dog possessed, but this moment he’s sitting quietly with Jenny, her head in his and she is crying in to him. He feels her heartbreak and just offers pure comfort. He’s using his special receptors to intuit how she is feeling.
Another reason for licking is that your dog simply wants some attention. He knows that he gets a reaction from you when he licks you. You might pat him playfully away, or even better scratch him behind his ear, which he loves. He kisses you, and you cuddle him back. It’s all a game to him. Or he might be trying to get your attention because he’s hungry or because he needs to get outside to poop. You have to read the signs.
Fundamentally, licking behavior is in a dog’s nature. When puppies are born, their mother brings them to life by licking them to stimulate their breathing. She also licks them to clean the afterbirth and continues this grooming technique as they grow. She also licks them to express affection. So from birth, dogs learn that licking is an important communication device.
Licking can also be a submissive gesture. In the wild inferior hounds would lick the superior dogs to show submission to them. By licking you, your dog might be communicating to you that you are the boss and he is content with that.
If a dog is licking something incessantly there could be something wrong. Excessive licking can be a sign of anxiety, stress or frustration. Licking can relieve stress for them but if they are fixating on licking something because of some other fear or anxiety, then it is a symptom of a bigger problem. You need to investigate this further.
The other question is, is it hygienic to let your dog lick you? Many people think it’s unsanitary, considering they use the same tongue to clean themselves and indeed investigate any old poop they find on the street. However a dog’s saliva actually contains lots of good enzymes that kill off bad bacteria, and a dog’s mouth can be very healthy.
A healthy dog’s lick is very unlikely to cause you any harm. In fact studies have shown that the bacteria and microbial community shared between dogs and their owners can help build our immune systems and ward off bad bacteria. If you don’t want your dog to lick you, try to train him not to. When he starts it, get up and walk out of the room. He will soon associate this behaviour with you leaving him and stop it.