06/08/2019 12:00 AM
You arrive home after a long day at work, and your dog greets you with a big, wet sloppy kiss. But is it really a sign of affection? Whilst it could be an indication that your pooch is happy to see you, there are a multitude of other reasons behind this kind of behaviour. In this article, we’ll begin to explore the complex psychology of dogs licking their owners, and if it’s a positive or a negative thing.
Our doggies have codified a series of ways to communicate different emotions to us as their favourite humans, and figuring them out differs from dog to dog. There are hundreds of ways that dogs communicate with their owners: from barking to leaning, to giving you their best puppy dog eyes.
So why does your dog insist on licking you? Whether it’s happening incessantly, or just from time to time, it’s fascinating to find out ways of reading their behaviour better. Read on to see if any of these ring true to you and your pet – after all, better understanding their behaviour will help to bring you closer together.
For the most part, the reason why domestic dogs lick you is that they want to show you some love. For many pet parents, it can get a bit too much; the best way to curb this behaviour is to teach them an alternative positive behaviour response.
However, if it doesn’t bother you, licking to show you that they’re fond of you means that your pup releases dopamine endorphins that help calm them down.
So are dogs licks really kisses, then?
Well, yes and no. Dogs work in a rather reciprocal manner – if a dog licks its owner’s face, and the owner responds positively with hugs, kisses or playing, the dog will want to repeat this behaviour.
Even if they’re licking you for a reason besides wanting to show affection, they will continue to do it if you respond with affectionate behaviour. Figuring out the intensity and frequency of the licks, and whether they’re licking your hands, feet or face, can help you better understand.
If your doggy is keen to lick your sweaty hands or feet, it’s probably a different reason altogether – and it’s quite interesting why that is. Dogs are pretty much driven by their senses, and often, it’s the first part of our body that we reach out to them.
We emit pheromones in our sweat, which can be decoded by dogs to better understand our mood. It’s not captured by the tongue, but instead, licking sends signals to the vomeronasal organ to figure us out.
Most dogs will do anything to get their hands on something to eat. Whether they’re licking crumbs off the floor, getting the last scraps from their bowl, or cleaning up after a spill, they’re usually the first to get involved.
The same goes for when they lick us, too. They might able to lick the last bits of food after we’ve been eating, but they are also attracted to the taste of salt on our skin. Whether this is for the taste or more for our pheromones is open to debate.
It turns out licking can also mean that our pooches are expressing empathetic concern towards us if we’re stressed out or upset. A study found that dogs licked, nuzzled or sniffed their owner when they pretended to cry more often than when they were humming or talking.
This pattern of response should be quite comforting to dog owners; especially those who can vouch for the fact that dogs can definitely detect when an owner is upset. Licking is generally a mechanism for dogs to find out more things about you.
When your dog licks your hand, it’s a sign of submission to you as the leader of their pack, and eases the stress of separation anxiety if you’ve been absent. Licking your hand is typical canine behaviour that has its origins all the way back when dogs evolved from wolves in the wild.
The pack leader would be licked by other canines, and when they came home to reunite with other members of their pack, licking would signify that they are their obedient companion and have missed them.
Why does my dog lick my eyes?
This is, in fact, also a sign of submission, believe it or not. It derives from the stages of early development as a puppy when pups were conditioned to lick their mother’s muzzle. They might be curious about you in the same way when their mother had come back from hunting – ‘have you brought food back to share?’, ‘where have you been?’, and so on.
Submissive dogs often groom the leader of the pack or their owner, so it could also be a form of grooming.
Is it similar to when dogs lick other dogs?
Dogs and humans generally communicate differently than how humans interact with one another. For our furry friends, licking is an instinctive practice with a function. It usually begins when they are born, and has its roots in their behaviour before they became domesticated.
Puppies will lick their mothers for warmth, but also to learn about where they have been and what their parents eat. The mother-pup relationship is quite telling in knowing why dogs lick. During puppyhood, you might have noticed that mothers will spend a long time licking their young pups as the Blue Cross explains, and if they have been brought up in a safe and nurturing way, this is something they carry with them throughout their lives.
If you’ve ever watched puppies with their mothers, you might also notice that licking is quite a noisy affair, and they are usually quite slow. This indicates a special, instinctive relationship between mother and pup. They usually lick them to encourage urination and defecation and then clean them up afterwards to eliminate any odours before predators discover them.
Among adult dogs, licking communicates submission to a pack member that it considers dangerous or superior to them – and this has its roots in wolf pack mentality. Licking the nose or lips of the dominant dog can get them out of trouble in conflict.
What does it mean when your dog licks a lot?
While being licked every now and again is quite normal, understanding the frequency and intensity that your dog licks you can help you figure out how they’re feeling. As their owner, incessant licking often requires you to take a closer examination at what might be an issue. It’s rarely pleasant for you (who will be covered in slobber) or your pooch (who might be desperate to let you know something is wrong).
Obsessively licking your hand could indicate a form of separation anxiety, particularly if they’ve been left alone. Dogs are very much pack creatures, and being left alone for long periods of time can cause them stress. If they have felt fearful after their owner has been away, an urgent sense of licking might indicate that they are craving some interaction with them.
Licking might indicate that they want your attention and are hungry or something. Perhaps this happens after a long day at work when they’re ready for their dinner. This also has its roots in pack behaviour, when they might be curious as to what their mother has brought them back from the hunt.
Whether that’s giving them love, taking them for a walk, or giving them some craved attention, licking is generally a sign that they want you to take care of them in some way. After all, domestic dogs are completely dependent on their owner’s love and care for their wellbeing.
The type of lick that your dog gives can even be differentiated. If your dog licks you and then moves away when you put your face too close to theirs, it might be a way of communicating that they want you to give them some space if they’re already quite comfortable.
How do I know what kind of lick my dog is giving me?
Reading the body language of your dog can tell you a lot about what they’re trying to tell you. Long, noisy licks and a relaxed, soft body generally means that they are showing affection. A wiggly body and a slurpy kiss probably mean they’re very comfortable to be around you and is reminiscent of experiences during puppyhood.
If a lick is smaller and close to the mouth or nose, this might mean that a dog is trying to gather more information about you. Their vomeronasal organ is constantly trying to learn information about their surroundings, and they can also do this with you.
If licks are frantic and incessant, this could also be their way of trying to communicate with you. Perhaps if you’ve been absent for a few hours, you might be smothered in licks and “kisses”. Of course, they are happy to see you. But it also might mean that they’re looking to be taken care of, or that it’s time for some food!
The same goes for if they lick you and move away - this could also be a form of communication that requires further reading into.
Do some dogs lick more than others?
While all dogs are known for their unrivalled sense of smell among mammals, certain breeds have more receptors than others and are therefore far more sensitive to new smells and tastes – and this, in turn, might affect how much your dog licks you.
For example, the top contenders are Dachshunds who have 125 million scent receptors; Fox Terriers have around 147 million; Beagles around 225 million; German Shepherds have 225 million; and Bloodhounds have a whopping 300 million of them. Nothing’s getting past those hounds!
What’s important to remember, is that you know your dog best and each canine is an individual with its own personality. Some dogs show affection in an entirely different way to others. Some are far more gestural, loudly proclaiming their love for their owner. Others might be more subtle and sidle up to you on the sofa.
Some doggies can truly show that they think a lot of you such as cuddling, barking, stretching towards you after lying down, putting their paw on you and leaning into you. All of these are generally sure signs of affection and differ between pets.
How can I stop my dog from licking me?
Affectionately licking your hands is generally your dog showing that they truly respect you, and should generally be interpreted as positive, instinctive behaviour. After all, they have been doing it since long before they were domesticated.
However, for some dog owners, it’s not a pleasant experience, particularly if you have to tolerate this behaviour a lot more than usual. The important thing to remember is that it’s not a reason to get frustrated; the solution lies in understanding what they want from you and teaching your dog a simple alternative in dog speak to remember after a couple of licks.
You can teach your dog a simple command of sit and stay to calm your dog down if you’re smothered by kisses after some hours absence. With larger hounds, in particular, this is something worth keeping in mind.
So why does my dog like to lick me all of the time?
So now that we’ve demystified why your dog is licking you, we can understand that there are a whole load of reasons why depending on the situation, and it’s up to us as owners to translate these “doggy messages” and figure out what exactly they need.
While they do indeed lick us because they want to show us affection, there is often a little more to read between the lines, and this differs from dog to dog.
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If you are a curious dog owner regarding the many traits of our furry friends, then why not also check out the article Why do dogs sniff?