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Why do dogs lick people? Whether you call it licking or (like us) refer to it as “kissing,” there’s no denying that many dogs love to lick people. Our Tiki, who is the world’s biggest kisser, greets us—and often other people she meets—by licking our faces if given the chance.
Fortunately, for us, Tiki’s face licking is reserved for greetings and for times of comfort. If one of us should stumble or slip down while walking, Tiki is there to administer some healing or at least comforting kisses. We don’t mind the kisses but are careful to warn our visitors that Tiki is prone to licking if they kneel down to her level.
For some dogs, though, licking is far more frequent, becoming a compulsive behavior (and one that has sent more than one owner in search of a dog behaviorist). As with most behaviors, it’s always good to know why it happens before attempting to redirect that behavior.
So why do dogs want to lick our faces? We set out to find the answer by contacting top dog professionals.
A Veterinarian’s Explanation for Licking
First, we decided to see if there was a veterinary explanation. We asked Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, author of the pet memoir All Dogs Go To Kevin. “Licking can represent a variety of behaviors – an expression of affection, attention seeking, playing, or even a sensory experience to see what you taste like. It can be a learned behavior as well if it consistently results in a positive outcome like attention.”
That certainly fit with Tiki’s behavior. We had to admit that her “kisses” made us laugh, reinforcing that behavior time and time again.
A Behaviorist’s Explanation for Licking
The longtime trainer and behaviorist and star of several Animal Planet programs explained that the degree to which dogs lick—and the degrees to which people choose to tolerate it—varies widely, as do the reasons that dogs might choose to lick.
Like so many things in the dog world, there’s no single definitive explanation but instead many potential reasons your dog may be a smooching pooch.
“There are a number of behavioral reasons why dogs lick people, and the fact is that most of the licking can be attributed the individual dog and his personality,” explained the host of “Good Dog U” and a dog trainer for TV and film.
“From what I have seen, a large percentage of dogs that like to lick people often have a bit of a submissive nature. This is not to say that only dogs that lick have that submissive quality. The fact is that dogs with a dominant characteristic can have a desire to lick people as well. In the ‘pack,’ a submissive dog might feel the need to lick the alpha dog to express its hierarchy within the pecking order.”
Silverman also explains that the licking may be a learned behavior. “You may or may not know that most animals like the taste of salt, and need it. In fact, you might even see a large ‘salt lick’ in a pasture for cows or horses to lick. Dogs need that sodium too, so it’s natural that your dog may have learned that the first time when he accidentally licked your face he tasted that sodium. Over the course of time he learned each time he licked your face he got more sodium. The behavioral pattern is easy enough to figure out that dogs will go to your face to get that salt taste if it is something he’s learned to do over time.”
Both those explanations certainly apply in Tiki’s case. While Tiki is the dominant dog in our home, she does seem to lick as a way to try to please or to be submissive to us.
And as for the salt, well, living in Texas with more 100-degree days than we can count, she certainly could be getting her sodium quota with just a few kisses.
Does breed or gender play a role in the licking behavior?
Our girl Tiki is a Doberman, Poodle, Bulldog, and Sheltie mix. Silverman explained that, as with so many individual characteristics, her heritage did not play a part.
“Because licking is based solely on personality, regardless of the breed, all breeds of dogs, as well as mixed breed dogs have a chance to be lickers. Also, since it is centered on behavior and temperament, it also does not matter the age or sex of the dog.”
Fortunately for us, Tiki’s licking is welcome. It’s moderate and can usually be predicted and redirected if it’s not an appropriate time for that public display of affection.
Silverman notes that, for some dogs, the licking becomes an obsessive behavior.
“I know about this very well because my dog Foster has a serious obsessive licking issue,” says Silverman. “If he were allowed to, he would lick me non-stop! I believe that some dogs, like Foster, who possess this obsession, cannot control the licking once it begins. It simply must be trained out of them.”
And, for others, the need for training is due to the response of the owner.
“When I think of dogs licking people, I always get a kick out of the various responses from people,” says the trainer. “There are some people that seem to be totally OK with dogs licking, and others that cringe at the mere thought of it: especially when they think about what the dog might have been licking just seconds before.”