Adrienne is a certified professional dog trainer, dog behavior consultant and former veterinarian assistant for an AAHA animal hospital.
Is Your Dog Licking People Excessively?
If your dog is licking people excessively, you may be desperate to find ways to stop the licking behavior. After all, not everybody is eager to receive "doggy kisses," and some people may even be disgusted.
We can't blame them though; becoming the human personification of a lollipop on legs isn't on everybody's wish list.
Not to mention, let's consider hygiene. A dog could have been licking his behind just moments prior or could have recently ingested "cow pies" from a country road or even some kitty "Tootsie rolls" from the litterbox.
Reputable medical sources have been warning about the dangers of dog saliva to the immunocompromised for some time.
In order to tackle the behavior though, it's important to better understand the root of the behavior. Why do some dogs feel compelled to lick people so much, compared to others? What is the ultimate driving force behind this behavior?
In this article we will therefore be covering:
- How licking behaviors are inculcated in puppies
- Three main licking reasons why puppies lick
- Whether salt plays a role in a dog's attraction to licking human skin
- Compelling evidence I found on why dogs may become so fixated on licking us
- How licking becomes an ingrained habit from puppyhood
- The issue of overly appeasing dogs
- One type of dog licking to watch for
- The importance of antecedent control to prevent licking in the first place
- How differential reinforcement can help reduce the behavior
- A variety of extra tips to help you succeed in stopping your dog from licking people
Dog Licking: A Behavior Reminiscent of Early Puppyhood
When our puppies first enter our homes at around 8 weeks, we may assume that we are dealing with a "blank slate," but this can be far from the truth.
We need to consider that these little puppies actually come with several "pre-packaged" behaviors as a result of genetics, instincts and early learning taking place in the litter.
As new puppy owners, we will miss out on what happens during these pups' first weeks, and then wonder what's going on in their little minds. Here is a little introduction to how licking behaviors become an integral part of a puppy's behavior repertoire.
Licking to Stimulate Life
As an altricial species, puppies are born in a pretty helpless state, which is in great contrast with precocial species (such as horses, sheep and cows) which are born capable of standing up and walking after a brief time.
Being born deaf, blind, unable to walk, and incapable of regulating their body temperatures and eliminating on their own makes puppies totally dependent on their mothers for life-sustaining maternal care.
Licking plays a fundamental role in survival. Right after being born, the mother dog will sever the umbilical cord with her carnassial teeth and will clean up the puppies from their afterbirth.
Her vigorous licking stimulates the puppies to breathe and elicits various muscular reflexes, explains Steven Lindsay in Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training.
Licking to Remove Waste
On top of this, the mother dog will use her licking to stimulate the puppies to eliminate. While dogs aren't den animals in the real sense of the word, in their ancestral past, they were born in temporary maternity dens. Keeping these dens clean was paramount for hygiene purposes and to prevent attracting predators through lingering odors.
Mother dogs would therefore lick the puppies' behinds to stimulate them to eliminate and would then ingest their waste during their first two weeks of life.
Licking to Get a Meal
Licking is something puppies learn about very soon, and once they start transitioning from milk to solid foods, a process known as weaning, they will start adopting licking behaviors themselves to get their mother to regurgitate food for them.
Yes, because in the wild, at this delicate stage, the pups are still too young to be joining the others in their hunting trips and the mother dog can't obviously carry meat for them from the kill area to the den!
Mother Nature has therefore found this ingenious solution, which works well also considering the fact that pups need to be gradually weaned from milk to meat, so they benefit from mother dog's regurgitated meal since it's already chewed and gruel-like!
Three Main Reasons Puppies and Dogs Lick
As seen in the paragraphs above, licking is a natural behavior in a pup's repertoire. By the time the puppy is introduced to his new home, this behavior will continue to persist and will roll over to some other contexts.
Below are several potential reasons why puppies and dogs lick people so that you can have a deeper understanding of the behavior and its driving forces.
Just as puppies used to lick the corners of their mother's mouth so to evoke regurgitation, puppies will carry over this behavior to other contexts such as greeting people.
Typically, the puppy will approach a person using appeasement-like body language such as ears pulled back, lowered body and wagging tail as they reach to lick human faces to meet and greet them.
These pups are signaling that they mean no harm, and sometimes they may even submissively/excitedly pee to further prove that they're just puppies and that they're feeling super happy to say hello.
And of course, who can resist a puppy who comes over to give "kisses?" Most likely, the behavior generates lots of "oohs" and "awwwwws." Puppies therefore quickly learn that licking works great to garner human attention.
The licking is therefore reinforced by attention, and behaviors that are reinforced are subjected to strengthen and repeat.
There are also less "romantic" reasons why dogs may lick people. For instance, puppies may love to lick toddlers' faces because as messy eaters, they always have some food remnants around the corners of their mouths.
Many puppies and dogs quickly also learn to lick people's hands, as they may get a taste of something awesome they have recently handled such as potato chips or a cookie.
When dogs find tasty residues on our hands sometimes, the behavior is put on a variable schedule, which makes it extra addicting. Indeed, variable schedules are the reason why people get so addicted to playing the slots in Vegas.
Do Dogs Lick Because of Our Salty Skin?
On top of licking for tasty remnants found on our face and hands, many people assume that dogs must love to lick people so much because our skin is naturally salty.
This theory makes sense because our skin is salty due to the presence of sweat. Our sweat is mostly composed of salt and water secreted by 2 to 5 million sweat glands that are found on our bodies and we surely produce a lot of sweat each day.
However, we also need to consider that our canine companions have significantly fewer taste receptors for salt compared to us humans.
On top of this, dogs don't evolutionarily need salt as much as humans, considering that, their meat-based diets in the wild provided them with enough levels of sodium, points out Stanley Coren in Psychology Today.
However, just because dogs don't need salt as we do, doesn't mean they won't be attracted to it. We all know about a dog's indiscriminate eating habits and how they would eat just about anything, even things that they don't need or are even bitter or harmful to them, like coffee grounds!
Intrigued by a dog's fixation on licking human skin and wishing to discover more, Stanley Coren, therefore, decided to conduct a small experiment.
What he did was recruit 20 dog owners instructing them to apply a salty solution on only one knee and provide details on how their dogs responded.
One would expect that, if dogs were really after the salt, they would have engaged in licking the salted knee more than the other knee and for a longer period of time.
Results of the study instead revealed that there were no noticeable differences concerning the amount of licking of one knee over another.
Of course, this is a topic that could benefit from more research, but based on this "empirical evidence," licking us because of our salty skin doesn't seem like a priority on a dog's agenda.
If Not Salt, Then What are Dogs Really After?
I must admit that this topic has really intrigued me, so much so, that I went through my library of books to learn more about our skin, sweat and its saltiness. I didn't find anything compelling until at a library, I stumbled upon a book that appeared promising, so I decided to purchase it.
The book The Joy of Sweat, The Strange Science of Perspiration by author Sarah Everts, certainly piqued my interest. This book doesn't primarily talk about dogs, but it has little nuggets here and there of info that have left me in awe.
I think this book can be quite an entertaining read for those fascinated by our bodies and always questioning things with an eagerness to discover fascinating stuff.
I will leave out the details about a very odd case of a nurse who was very addicted to a snack food leading to one of the oddest symptoms in history and will focus instead on some details found in a chapter of the book where Everts explains how, when our bodies are opened up, it's very wet inside courtesy of interstitial fluids meant to keep our internal organs damp.
These fluids are sourced from our blood, so when we sweat, our sweat glands ultimately source the sweat from this fluid which ultimately sources from our blood.
What this means is that virtually anything that enters our bodies and reaches our bloodstream will eventually be excreted through our sweat. This includes our morning coffee or that evening glass of wine!
With a dog's superior sense of smell, capable of detecting one teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, (source: Alexandra Horowitz), it wouldn't be therefore surprising if dogs were ultimately after the smell/taste of what we recently ate, transpiring from the pores of our skin.
After all, dogs can detect cancer, high glucose levels, and likely even our adrenaline, so why not detect something we recently ate and drank?
One Mistake That Turns Licking into an Ingrained Habit
So there you have it: Multiple reasons why dogs like to lick people so much. Most likely, it's not just one single reason at play, but a multitude. It's a natural behavior that gets exploited by attention, tasty remnants found on our faces and hands, and likely a smorgasbord of foods we recently ate transpiring from our bodies.
But wait, there's more! Sure, doling attention to our dogs when they lick is one main reason why this behavior puts roots and establishes, but there's one mistake that can cause licking to become particularly ingrained.
I am talking here about the common recommendation made often by well-meaning articles, books and dog trainers in order to tackle puppies who are fixated on biting.
I am talking about the common recommendation of ignoring the puppy's biting and reinforcing licking by providing feedback in the form of praise.
Some puppy owners are sometimes even instructed to place butter on their hands and praise their pups for licking their hands.
I have nothing really against these practices. I am all for reinforcing alternate behaviors using differential reinforcement and doing what it takes to prevent the puppy from rehearsing unwanted behaviors such as excessive nipping.
However, there's a problem with this advice: Puppy owners are not provided with any follow-up instructions on how to proceed moving forward, so they are perpetually stuck with a puppy who licks.
The truth is, we want our puppies to learn bite inhibition by first teaching them to bite less roughly, then more softly, then just licking, as this teaches them to gauge the pressure of their jaws; however, the ultimate goal is to eventually stop them from mouthing and licking all together.
This can be accomplished by providing alternate outlets for their biting behaviors, and through several exercises to teach puppies bite inhibition I have come up with after dealing with a nippy German shepherd pup, along with instituting better impulse control.
Basically, we try to extinguish the biting/licking by allowing the pups to focus on some other activity and making that extra rewarding.
The Issue of Overly Appeasing Dogs
Some dogs make of licking their way of life. I am talking here about some dogs who become fixated on licking other dogs and people. Many of these dogs are what are called "overly appeasing dogs." In other words, they use their licking in hopes of calming others down and showing their peaceful intentions.
The issue is, these dogs can get carried away and the behavior becomes so obnoxious it's annoying and when directed towards other dogs, it can even evoke conflicts, which motivates these dogs to lick even more, leading to a vicious cycle.
The poster child of an overly appeasing licker who constantly licks people is often a shy, insecure dog. These dogs need to feel more confident and at the same time, they need to be trained in alternate behaviors.
"Kiss to Dismiss" Licking
There's one type of "doggy kiss" that you want to be aware of, considering its potential risks.
I am talking here about the "kiss to dismiss." Coined by Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) Jennifer Shryock, despite appearing like a kiss, this licking is a way for the dog to ask for distance.
You can see this in dogs who are not comfortable, and who are possibly even anxious about an interaction.
There are chances that some dogs may lick faces as a displacement behavior to biting. In other words, these dogs may have been corrected for nipping in the past, and therefore replace it with excessive licking.
In the video below, you'll see displacement behavior in action. Never allow a child to behave this way!
Ways to Stop a Dog From Licking People
In order to tackle the issue of dogs licking people excessively, you may need to take a multi-faceted approach, tackling it from a variety of angles. Here are some general guidelines and tips.
In antecedent control, we manage the dog's environment so that he doesn't get to rehearse the problematic behavior (licking).
Here's the thing: licking as already talked about, is reinforcing in various ways. The attention the dog gets is reinforcing, and so is feeling safe if your dog's licking is to appease you.
In antecedent control steps are taken to prevent the dog from rehearsing the licking behavior. The more dogs rehearse behaviors, the more they gain reinforcement and therefore the behavior becomes habitual and ingrained.
Antecedent control in this case could therefore entail anything that makes the behavior unlikely or difficult to occur. For example:
- Keeping the dog on leash, at a distance from people to prevent greeting by licking
- Not sitting down or bending close to the dog's level if that evokes face-licking
- Keeping hands in the pockets to prevent hand licking
- Wearing long pants and long sleeves to prevent body licking
- Wearing closed shoes/socks for foot licking
- Placing boxes or books on the couch if the dog jumps up there to lick people
Train an Alternate Behavior
As you take steps to prevent your dog from gaining reinforcement from licking, you want to work on the side on training an alternate behavior for your dog to engage in, making that extra rewarding. Basically, you want to train your dog other ways to interact with you that don't involve licking and making these extra rewarding so as to surpass the desire to lick.
For example, you can train your dog to "take" by showing a long tug toy and praising and rewarding him by playing tug with him, or you can train your dog to nose target your hand and praise and reward that with a tasty treat or kibble tossed at a distance. You can repeat this several times with your dog yo-yoing back and forth.
Another option is training a front sit, with your dog sitting in front of you at a distance. Praise and reward your dog for sitting in front of you by tossing a kibble or treat. You can also repeat this several times with your dog yo-yoing back and forth.
For dogs who are particularly mouthy, it is possible to train them to carry a toy in their mouth upon greeting people and giving the dog attention this way. Of course, avoid this if your dog is prone to resource guarding.
Avoid Any Form of Attention
Even with the best antecedent control plan, the dog may still manage to lick. In this case, it's important to avoid giving the dog any form of attention, and this includes attention of the negative type such as scolding the dog or pushing him away.
Remember: to an attention-driven dog, any form of attention qualifies as reinforcing, and therefore, you will have fueled the behavior, when you want it to extinguish.
In this case, you could therefore turn your head, or even turn your back and eventually walk away if the behavior persists. Make sure to do this every single time.
Beware of Extinction Bursts
When you start ignoring a behavior that was fueled by attention in the past, you should expect a phenomenon known as an "extinction burst."
Basically, what happens is that, since your dog was used to getting attention by licking in the past, the moment you start ignoring him, he'll try to escalate the behavior as if saying "Hey, look I am licking you, look at me! Hello?"
At some point, your dog may even throw in some new behaviors just to get a response such as barking or maybe even nipping.
In these cases, it's important to stick to the plan and keep ignoring it, otherwise, you risk reinforcing persistence. Now, you may be stuck with a dog who takes even longer to stop licking and maybe starts nipping too!
Avoid Behavior Chains
A big mistake that often dog owners make is to inadvertently create behavior chains. Behavior chains are sequences of behaviors where an unwanted behavior mistakenly partakes in the chain.
For example, let's say you are training your dog to sit and you praise and reward by tossing a kibble. At some point, your dog licks your hand, but you immediately ask your dog to sit and then praise/reward that.
Your dog may come to think that the lick is part of the chain of behaviors that generate reinforcement (either in the form of attention or treats), so don't be surprised if at some point, you'll notice more episodes of licks before sitting!
It's therefore important paying attention to what is happening and avoid reinforcing any licking with any form of attention considering that even giving the cue to sit is a form of attention, further amplified by the addition of a treat.
If your dog licks you a lot, you can keep his mind off licking by engaging him with food puzzles and opportunities to forage such as fun treasure hunts.
You may also find it helpful to engage your dog in fun brain games like getting tennis balls out of a muffin tin with treats hiding under.
Enrichment helps keep the dog's mind busy and fosters more independence, while also providing him with some activities that can help boost his confidence and promotes mental well-being.
Tackle Anxiety-Driven Behaviors
Dogs who lick due to anxiety and a deep need to appease should be provided with the reassurance of routines and benefit from learning to trust.
As seen, dogs may lick for a variety of reasons. Tackling the underlying emotions and implementing management and training can go a long way.
The behavior will likely not change overnight, however, by preventing rehearsal of the problematic behavior, preventing your dog from gaining reinforcement upon licking, training alternate behaviors that replace the licking, tackling underlying emotions, and providing enrichment, the behavior should gradually decrease over time.
- Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training by Steven Lindsay
- The Joy of Sweat, The Strange Science of Perspiration by author Sarah Everts
- Why Dogs Like to Lick People, Psychology Today, by Stanley Coren
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli