What Does It Mean When A Dog Licks You?

Key takeaway

Dogs love to lick humans for several reasons, including to show affection, boredom, and to seek attention. While your dog licking you might be adorable, it can be annoying to others, and some cases of licking can indicate an underlying health concern.

Dogs lick their human companions for several reasons, including to show affection, to get attention, due to instinct, because you taste good, or due to underlying behavioral issues. Dogs have a ton of strange habits. For example, dogs smell your crotch to learn about you, and they sniff other dogs' butts to learn about them. So, even though your dog's behavior might seem a little bit strange to you, there's a reason behind every lick.

This article will discuss what it means when a dog licks you and help you determine when it's an issue that requires veterinary attention.

Why Do Dogs Lick People?

There are many reasons why your dog might lick you, but experts still don't know the exact reason for the behavior. However, wild dogs often lick their mother's face after she has returned from a hunt to get her to regurgitate the food for them.1

Of course, there are many reasons why your dog licks you and other people, and it may have nothing to do with what you just ate. Here are a few other reasons why your dog licks people.

To Show Affection

To Show Affection

Dogs may lick people to show them they love them. Many people believe their dog's way of kissing is by licking them. Licking can easily become a learned behavior for many dogs. For example, if your dog licks you once and you smile and pet them, you're rewarding their behavior, so they'll learn to do it again. Additionally, your dog might start using their tongue to greet you. For example, when you get home from work, your dog might wag their tail at you or lick your face or hands when you reach down to pet them.

Additionally, consider where puppies learned their behavior before you came into their lives. Their dog mother likely licked them all over to groom them and show affection, so they learned that licking is a way to demonstrate affection.

They Want Attention

They Want Attention

Dogs will do a lot of things to get attention from their human companions, and dogs may lick you out of boredom to get you to pay attention to them, pet them, or play with them. Remember, you reinforce your dog's behavior by reacting positively to it. For example, if your dog starts licking you and you laugh because it tickles or you begin petting them, they will learn that licking is a good way to get you to stop what you're doing and give them what they want.

Unfortunately, even negative reactions to their licking can reinforce behavior because your dog doesn't fully understand human body language. For example, asking your dog to stop or gently pushing them away can exacerbate the problem because you're giving them exactly what they want – attention.

Instincts

Instincts

Remember where your dog comes from. As we've mentioned, wild dogs get regurgitated food from their mothers after a hunt, so it's possible your dog is just repeating the behavior of their ancestors. If your dog is licking you in the face or near your mouth, it could be because you've just eaten, and they want to share in the meal after the fact. Also, remember, they can smell the food still on your lips and even in your mouth, so while they might not be asking you to regurgitate your meal, they still want to be able to taste the smell of food that's lingering on your face.

Taste

Taste

As we've mentioned, dogs might lick you so they can taste something on you. However, dogs don't just lick the face or your mouth. Dogs may be more prone to lick you in other places, such as your hands or even your feet. Ultimately, your dog might lick you because you taste good, especially if you have something on your skin that smells good.1 For example, many dogs try to lick their owners after a shower because they smell nice, leading their dogs to believe they also taste nice.

Behavioral Problems

Behavioral Problems

Excessive licking may indicate a behavioral problem, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Many dogs with anxiety engage in compulsive behavior as a way to help themselves learn how to calm down. Licking might be your dog's way of trying to cope with stress. Additionally, if your dog is licking more than just you, such as licking themselves or objects, it may indicate underlying anxiety.2

When To Be Worried About Excessive Licking

Dogs like to lick humans for several reasons, but licking can become a problem. Excessive licking can be annoying or even disgusting to humans. Many people don't want their faces licked by dogs because dogs have some unappealing grooming habits, such as licking their paws and behind. Additionally, licking can become annoying when your dog is licking you too frequently.

Ultimately, you, as the pet parent, teach your dog appropriate behavior, whether directly or indirectly. For example, if your dog learns that you'll allow them to lick your face or feet because you don't try to stop them, they'll believe that behavior is okay for everyone, not just you. Additionally, even negative reactions to your dog's behaviors can accidentally reward them and make them believe their behavior is acceptable.

If you don't want your dog licking you or others, it's best to start training them out of it as soon as possible. With rewards-based training, you can teach your pet the ideal behaviors so they'll continue to do those and stop engaging in behavior you might find gross or even annoying, such as licking you.

Of course, there are other situations where you might consider getting your dog help for excessive licking. If your dog is excessively licking you or themselves, it may indicate an underlying issue, including:

When to be worried about licking

Allergies

Allergies are common in dogs, and any type of allergy can result in itchy skin, including both food and environmental allergies. Along with scratching, dogs with allergies may lick or chew on themselves to help stop the annoying itchy feeling. Luckily, allergies are fairly easy to treat at home with the help of your vet. Depending on the type of allergy your dog has, your vet might try an elimination diet to determine which foods your dog is allergic to, or they'll give you medication and calming shampoo that can prevent allergies and stop itchy skin.

Infections and Other Skin Conditions

Licking is a type of grooming, and many dogs may excessively groom themselves when they're itchy. If your dog is licking and scratching themselves in the same area, check their skin to look for signs of problems, such as inflammation, redness, or infection. A few skin infections and skin conditions your dog could have if they are excessively licking themselves are:

  • Parasites: If you notice your dog licking one area more than usual, or they're grooming so much they might be hurting themselves, take them to the vet to determine if there is an underlying parasite infestation that might be making them itchy. Your vet might have to scrape your pet's skin to see if there are any fleas or mites living on them, but once you know why your dog is licking themselves, you can start to treat the problem.2
  • Skin infections: Once you know your dog doesn't have a parasite infestation, they'll need to be tested for a skin infection to determine why they're itchy. There are many types of skin infections that can cause excessive grooming as a way to quell the itch, including yeast, bacterial, and fungal infections.2

Anxiety

Anxiety causes dogs to do all sorts of things, including barking, pacing, panting, and even licking. If your dog is anxious, they may choose to lick anything to distract themselves from something that's making them uncomfortable. Excessive licking may also indicate OCD, which is a type of anxiety disorder.

There are many ways to help soothe your dog's anxiety, but the best way is to figure out what triggers their anxiety. If you're not sure how to help your dog, talk to a vet behaviorist who can help you understand your dog's anxiety and find ways to help them cope with anxious times.

Pain

Dogs typically lick themselves when they have a wound, which is likely their way of trying to take care of the wound themselves. However, dogs will also lick themselves to help quell any type of pain, including joint pain.2 If you notice your dog is licking one part of their body, such as their leg, check the area for wounds, pain, or insect bites that might be causing the behavior.

If you find your dog has a wound, clean it out with a mild soap that's safe for dogs, then take your dog to the vet for further examination.

If your dog is licking themselves excessively due to a type of pain you can't see on the surface, such as joint pain or a bone fracture, take them to the vet immediately. If your dog is in extreme pain, has swelling, or is limping, they should always go to the vet as soon as possible.

Nausea

Dogs can also start licking excessively to soothe nausea. If your dog is nauseous, they might start licking their lips, the air, your skin, or just about anything. Other signs of nausea include vomiting, decreased appetite, shaking, panting, and eating grass.2

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do dogs lick their owners?

Dogs typically lick their owners to show affection and because they've learned the behavior over time. For example, an owner who smiles and laughs when their dog licks them is reinforcing the behavior.

What is a dog telling you when it licks you?

When dogs lick you, they could be telling you anything. Most dogs lick out of affection, but your dog could be licking you because they're bored, anxious, or they think you taste good. To figure out why your dog is licking you, it's best to consider what's going on that could be causing it. For example, your dog might lick you after you eat so they can get a small taste of the food that might be left on your lips.

How can you tell if your dog is happy?

There are many signs that a dog is happy, including a high wagging tail, relaxed body, and playful mood. Dogs that are content will also lean into you or nap on your lap. However, it's important for every pet parent to learn their dog's body language to help them figure out when their dogs are not only happy but stressed.

Dog licking owner’s face

Final Notes

Dogs lick for several reasons, but they lick their owners for attention, to show affection, because they're bored, or because their owners taste delicious. Whatever the reason, it's up to you to decide if it's okay for your dog to lick you and others or if you want to curb the behavior. Of course, getting a few kisses from your pooch after work is much different than excessive licking they may engage in when they're suffering from an underlying condition. While dogs typically won't excessively lick their humans, they will instead obsessively lick themselves, especially when in pain. Dogs can also lick themselves excessively to manage allergy symptoms, such as itchy skin.

Your dog could also be excessively licking due to an underlying anxiety disorder, which can impact their quality of life. No matter the reason your dog is licking themselves excessively, it's important to get the help of a Dutch vet who can help you treat your dog's excessively licking from the comfort of your own home. Dutch offers telemedicine for pets to help anxious pets deal with common symptoms of allergies and anxiety, including excessive grooming and licking due to itchy skin.

References

  1. Robins, Mary. "Why Is My Dog Licking Me? Tips to Identify and Alleviate Problem Licking." American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 29 Sept. 2021, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/advice/why-is-my-dog-licking-me/.

  2. "Excessive Licking, Chewing, and Grooming in Dogs." PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/dog/general-health/excessive-licking-chewing-and-grooming-dogs.