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Why Do Dogs Lick People? The Science Behind Doggie Kisses

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There you are, minding your business as you lay on the couch with a book. Maybe you heard the approach of canine paws, maybe you didn’t. Suddenly, without warning, you feel the press of wet doggie tongue over your face. You’re the recipient of a puppy kiss. When you look up, your dog happily continues to lick your face. And you can’t help but laugh. But you might wonder what drives the urge behind dogs licking people. Are they the affectionate doggie kisses we often describe them as? That sounds sweet, of course. But what if there’s more to it? Let’s take a look behind the slobber and investigate why dogs lick people.

Dog Mouths

Before we get into the “Why” of dogs licking people, let’s confront the elephant in the room. Not everyone likes having their face licked (I’m one of them). Plenty of germaphobes out there prefer to jerk their heads back and avoid doggie tongues. And they have a good reason. The Old Wives Tale that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than yours? Yeah, not true.

Dogs carry PLENTY of bacteria in their mouths. They need them to break down their food and keep their teeth healthy. Unfortunately, those microbes don’t play nicely with OUR immune systems. And if you’ve ever ended up with a dog bite, you know that first-hand. Doctors clean and flush the wound to prevent infection. One little bug in particular can cause a lot of problems. Capnocytophaga canimorsus lives in dog saliva. It doesn’t affect canines, but humans? We don’t get along if we have certain compromising conditions. And if it squirms into an open wound, it can cause you to get sick, especially if your immune system isn’t functioning at peak performance.

But, in general? Dogs licking people doesn’t bother most owners – germs and all.

Dogs licking people isn't always comfortable for germaphobes

Dogs Licking People: What Does it Mean?

Quiz most dog-lovers, and they’ll assure you dogs licking people means affection. Why else call them doggie kisses? And we encourage that image by teaching our dogs to “kiss” us on the face. It’s often one of the best parts of the day, when we first come home or when we’re snuggling on the couch at the end of the day. That’s a private moment shared between our four-legged friend and ourselves.

But while you invested plenty of time working on reinforcing the behavior, it may NOT represent affection. There are plenty of other reasons behind the behavior of dogs licking people. And some of them? They might surprise you (or convince you that us germaphobes have the right idea).

Dogs Licking People: “More Please”

Unless you’re a breeder or watch animal programs regularly, you may miss one of the earliest puppy behaviors. True, puppies nurse from their mothers. But once they progress to more solid foods, they develop a new tradition. They start licking their mother’s mouth to encourage her to regurgitate pre-chewed food for them to eat. (Nope, not just a bird thing)

“Researchers of wild canids – wolves, coyotes, foxes, and other wild dogs – report that puppies lick the face and muzzle of their mother when she returns from a hunt to her den in order to get her to regurgitate for them.”

~Alexandra Horowitz, Author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

So dogs licking people CAN represent a throw-back to that infantile behavior. If you recently finished eating, and your dog comes up to clean your face, they may be asking for some of your “leftovers.” Remember, dogs have an incredible sense of smell. Even if you swiped your face with a napkin (or a damp cloth), your pup could pick up the scent of your meal. And that means they’re looking for a handout. Even if they’re no longer a puppy needing mom’s assistance. Our domestication process often prompts dogs to continue puppy behaviors into adulthood, including dogs licking people for food.

Add in that our skin is naturally salty, and we’re delicious to dogs. If you recently exercised, that salt content goes up. And since you need to refuel after a hefty workout that means salt AND a snack! (Bet you didn’t consider that when you thought about dogs licking people!)

Dogs Licking People: Mother Knows Best

When mother dogs – or any canid, really – give birth, the first thing they do is clean the puppy’s face. This clears the nostrils so they can breathe and stimulates blood flow to the head. It’s the first bonding experience the two share. Depending on the species, other pack members may also lick the new puppy to welcome it to the family. It’s a natural grooming process that establishes affection between everyone – before eyes or ears open.

So, yes, dogs licking people CAN represent affection – though in a different way than most owners think. Humans replaced the canine members of the pack. The licking behavior remained, and they reaffirm those bonds when they “groom” us. It’s keeping everyone close and defined. This is why you often see your dog licking you and other family members but not necessarily strangers. As you bring in friends for regular visits, your dog may start to include them in the ritual as they recognize them as part of the “group.” But a person they happen to meet on a walk or run? The odds are you won’t see your dog licking that person.

Dogs Licking People: The Healing Touch

Affection is the first thought in most people’s minds when they see dogs licking people. And the majority of the time, there’s plenty of excitement and energy involved in the process – for both the canine and the human. But what about the times when you’ve noticed a dog approaching someone who ISN’T in the best mood? Maybe the pup doesn’t lick that person’s face, but they may grace their tongue over a hand or even leg. What’s going on there?

As with any animal, dogs pick up on emotions. They understand when we’re upset, nervous, or stressed. And, in the wild, licking is used to communicate submission as well as affection. The process of licking releases endorphins in your dog’s brain. Endorphins lower stress levels in the body, boosting a sense of well-being.

So when a dog feels someone in the house getting upset, they try to remedy the situation. Dogs licking people is their answer to diffusing the tension. This can be, so THEY feel better, or as a way to try to heal the human. They KNOW licking makes their brain calm down, so they assume the same is true for us. It’s affection, but with a twist. This is why you may notice your dog coming over when you feel down. Maybe they don’t jump up and slather your face with doggie kisses. Instead, they provide calm, quiet licks to the back of your hand. The love is still there, but it’s an attempt to improve YOUR mood.

For a lot of people, doggie kisses are the best

“No Licking Please”

Not everyone appreciates dogs licking people. In our house, there’s a firm “no face licking” rule. And our Greyhound knows and respects that rule (most of the time – she DOES get super-interested when either of us finishes a workout). But what do you do if your pup insists on licking you and you’re not comfortable? Can you stop the licking behavior? Perhaps not, but you CAN deflect it from YOU.

As usual, when you’re confronted with a behavior, you want to fade away, ignoring it is your best course of action. You don’t need to say “No” or make any motions that might frighten or startle your dog. Calmly get up (removing your face from the tongue zone) and go into another room. If you find yourself pursued, calmly close the door. As soon as your dog stops trying to lick you, praise them and offer a treat. Don’t go overboard, though, or you’ll stimulate them into doggie kissing mode again. If you stay firm in this routine, the behavior will naturally fade.

You can also redirect your dog to something that takes their attention away. If they’re playing with a puzzle toy or chasing a frisbee, they can’t lick. There’s no punishment involved OR negative reinforcement. You’re simply distracting your dog from licking people. And the same fading will occur.

Suppose you want a trained response of dogs licking people. You choose an assigned command. Then your dog will learn WHEN to give kisses. That may help if you have friends that aren’t comfortable getting licked. And you can work to have your dog lick a hand, cheek, or chin – versus your entire face. It’s a nice compromise.

Doggie Kisses

“Dogs often lick people to show affection, as a greeting, or to simply get our attention. Of course, if you happen to have a little food, lotion, or salty sweat on your skin, that may play a role, as well,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, Pet Life Today Advisor. This pretty much sums up all of the possibilities behind dogs licking people. Does that mean you’re wrong when you call them doggie kisses? Of course not. But your dog may have more in mind when they stretch out their tongue.

And as long as everyone’s washing their hands and face, there’s no problem with the behavior.

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Andria Kennedy

Andria Kennedy

Andria grew up in a pet-friendly household. On weekends, the family made trips to zoos and aquariums in the area. So it wasn't a surprise when she gravitated toward a career with animals. After six years working among the background operations at the Philadelphia Zoo, she gained a unique insight into the veterinary world. The vet staff provided her first lessons in terminology, the identification of medical equipment, and glimpses of radiographs (x-rays). She also enjoyed plenty of opportunities to talk with everyone, including the veterinary technicians. And they offered an alternative for someone NOT interested in surgical pathways: Namely, their course of study. Andria enrolled at Harcum College. Philadelphia boasts two programs for vet techs, but only Harcum works with the Ryan Veterinary Hospital and New Bolton Center (University of Pennsylvania's small and large animal facilities, respectively). Harcum's vet tech students receive six months of hands-on teaching and experience alongside Penn's vet students. With the opportunities and connections available with one of the top veterinary schools, the decision was easy for her to make. New Bolton Center: Large Animal Medicine Andria ended up trudging through snow up to the knee and shivering in subzero temperatures during her winter semester, but she wasn't disappointed with her choice. New Bolton provided a thorough grounding in large animal medicine. A horse-lover as a child, the experience renewed those old emotions. And a few memories stood out and remained to this day: • Standing alongside a Clydesdale and feeling TINY • Holding the reins of a horse galloping at top speed on a treadmill • Nursing tiny foals through the first days of their life Ryan Veterinary Hospital: Small Animal Medicine Veterinary students can legally work at a practice while studying. Andria took advantage of the opportunity, gaining "real life" experience while attending class. It provided a slight advantage when she entered her three months at the small animal hospital. However, as Ryan Veterinary Hospital offers treatments unique to the veterinary community, she continued to gain valuable experience. For instance, she spent a day working alongside their Chemo Team. The positivity of everyone she encountered - staff, clients, and patients alike - left a lasting impression. Additional standout moments included: • An afternoon spent with the head of the feline kidney transplant program • A day serving as the anesthesia technician in their new radiation unit • Recognizing a radiograph of a giant elephant shrew (applying her previous zoo knowledge) Emergency/ICU Veterinary Technician Accompanying her Associate of Science in Veterinary Technology, Andria received a passing score on the Veterinary Technician National Exam (VTNE). The two led to her certification/license as a veterinary technician - first in Pennsylvania (CVT) and later in Virginia (LVT). Emergency medicine appealed to her from the beginning. The flux of ailments, injuries, and even species kept her mind sharp at all times. The knowledge required to handle cats, dogs, exotics, and even wildlife is highest in an ICU setting. When a vet tech never knows the patient's stability coming back to the treatment area, skills and the ability to respond in an instant always stay in peak shape. With treatments evolving at a constant basis, Andria sought out the best Continuing Education opportunities. She attended the International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (IVECCS) Conference whenever possible. This allowed her to discuss the latest wound treatments, medications, and advancements in diet formulations. Cardiology Veterinary Technician With the increased knowledge and experience, Andria noticed gaps in her abilities. Her grasp of cardiology remained at the basic level. She wanted to boost her skills and understanding as much as possible, improving her patient care. When an opportunity within the practice arose to move into the cardiology department, she accepted. She sharpened her ability to read ECGs, recognizing arrhythmias of every type. Speaking with the cardiologist, she learned to read echocardiograms, picking out the most common disease processes. And, courtesy of her position in the department, she took in everything she could regarding the grain-free diet concern. And throughout her ten-year career, she built her store of client interactions. She learned stories of heartbreak and hope. In the middle of the night, she shared touching and humorous conversations. Every moment taught her to engage with people. And the skill blended into her writing ability, capturing the interest of pet-lovers everywhere.

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