Why Dogs Lick Humans
Why do dogs lick humans? Did you ever feel like you were the human personification of a doggy lollipop? If so, most likely you own a dog who goes bonkers over licking hands, feet, and faces. What gives? There are several explanations for this doggy behavior, which is actually pretty normal for canines once we see the dynamics at play. So, what causes dogs to lick humans? Let's take a look at some possible explanations.
Why Dogs Lick Humans
- We taste good!
- We haven't taught them differently.
- We reinforce it.
- It's instinctive.
- It relieves stress.
1. We Taste Good!
First and foremost, dogs are often attracted to smells so they may lick to get a "taste of us." If you've ever seen a dog interact with a toddler, the dog will often be very interested in the mouth area especially if the toddler just ate. What looks like an endearing act is more of an opportunistic one, with the dog enjoying licking up the remains of the SpaghettiOs sauce found in the corner of the child's mouth! But it's not just food dogs are on the lookout for. Human sweat is salty in flavor, so many dogs enjoy licking our skin to get some tasty salt. If food was recently handled, Rover will always happily enjoy cleaning our hands up for us, removing any residue.
2. We Haven't Taught Them Differently!
When teaching bite inhibition, we often give lots of feedback to dogs to teach them how to bite more gently and gauge better the pressure of their jaws. Often we will pronounce an "ouch!" along with withdrawal from the game. On the other hand, we then reward kinder nips and licking often even encouraging it by using a tasty treat on our hands. It comes as no surprise then when Rover is stuck at this phase where he mouths with less pressure and licks at our hands a lot. Once the dog learns to exert less pressure, Ian Dunbar (in the video below), recommends raising the criteria and working on decreasing the frequency of mouthing.
3. We Reinforce It!
Often, we reward licking behaviors without being aware of it. When we are sitting and Rover comes lick us, we may automatically pet him or talk to him. When he greets us at the door we may also reward him for licking us and saying hello by showering him with our attention. At times, even negative attention may be rewarding to dogs. If say Rover is at home alone all day, and he licks you while you are sitting on the couch and you get upset and scold him, he might as well enjoy that form of attention than any attention at all. As a general rule of thumb, any behavior that persists is fueled by some form of reinforcement.
4. It's Instinctive
Licking behaviors are innate, meaning that dogs don't need to learn them as it comes natural to them. Mother dog communicates with her puppies through licking right after birth and in the wild puppies will lick around the mother's mouth in hopes of her regurgitating. Victoria Stillwell adds that licking is also a submissive gesture, and in domestic dogs, often a sign of affection.
5. It Relieves Stress
Last but not least, nervous dogs tend to lick as a way to relieve stress. Endorphins, which are "feel good chemicals," are released when dogs lick. As explained by renown dog behavior specialist Victoria Stillwell, this is quite similar to a nervous person biting their nails.
Ian Dunbar Discusses Bite Inhibition
How to Reduce Licking Behaviors in Dogs
Many owners learn to accept licking as part of dog ownership. Some will only accept a few licks and then tell their dogs "that's enough." Others may want to curb the behavior either because they find it annoying or they are allergic to dog saliva. As mentioned, generally behaviors that persist have some sort of reinforcement fueling them. In the case of licking people, most likely the attention the dog gets from this behavior (either positive or negative) is what keeps this behavior alive. Reducing licking behaviors therefore requires the following approaches.
How to Reduce Your Dog's Licking Behaviors
- Ignore the licking. Don't reward it with any kind of attention, pretend nothing is happening. Continue reading, watching TV or working on the computer.
- If the licking persists, get up and leave. Once the dog learns through associative learning that licking means you leave, its incidence should start to reduce.
- Be aware of extinction bursts, that is, the licking behavior temporarily increasing in intensity. This phenomenon is short-lived and should extinguish if you keep it up in ignoring the behavior.
- Give your dog attention when he is not licking, and no attention when he is licking.
- Keep your hands/face clean! If you smell like a jar of peanut butter, you dog will be unable to resist you! If you are all sweaty, expect Rover to want to clean you off and get his daily dose of salt.
- Training a replacement behavior for the licking may be helpful. You can train your dog to target your hand, give paw or anything else you find more acceptable than licking. Make sure you heavily reward this replacement behavior and you'll see this new, replacement behavior more and more, and the licking less and less.
- Licking is sometimes self-soothing behavior, so if a dog is stressed, it's worth it to work on any underlying issues. Relaxation exercises that focus on rewarding calm behaviors will help. If the licking occurs mostly in social situations, it's a good idea to reduce social pressure.
- Never punish a dog for licking as this can increase stress and it may be unjust as the dog may lick because he was rewarded for it in the past (and has no fault) and it's often a sign of affection.
Rolan Tripp, DVM Discusses Licking
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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.
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli