Many dogs love to lick people. It's so common that we dog owners usually call it "giving kisses." Some dogs seem to lick more than others. Does licking really mean something? Why do dogs lick? Is licking a problem? The answers might depend on you personally and your individual dog.
Why Dogs Lick People
No one knows for certain why dogs lick, but most experts agrees that it's a combination of things.
Generally, licking is not considered a serious behavior problem unless it really bothers you. Knowing the reason for licking might change the way you feel about it.
Affection: It's fair to say that your dog is probably licking you because he loves you! There's a good reason for calling licks "kisses." Dogs show affection by licking people and sometimes even other dogs. Licking is a natural action for dogs. They learned it from the grooming and affection given to them as puppies by their mothers. Dogs might lick your face if they can get to it. If not, they might just dog for any available patch of skin, like hands, arms, legs and feet. Some dogs tend to lick less than others. This does not necessarily mean that a dog is less affectionate if he does not lick. He might have just learned things differently as a puppy.
Attention-Seeking: Licking behavior that starts as affection often gets reinforced by a person's reaction: laughing, smiling, petting, etc. Maybe your dog is bored or lonely.
There you are and he wants your attention. Even negative attention can encourage licking. When a dog seeks attention, he will generally be reinforced by any kind of attention, even the negative type. Pushing him away, saying "no" or even punishing him still means you're not ignoring him.
You Taste Good: One that dog gets to licking you, he might realize you have an intriguing human taste that is slightly salty. Dogs love anything that has an interesting taste! Plus, licking is a way for your dog to explore his world. You're part of that world after all.
Instinct: When wolves (and sometimes dogs in the wild) return to their pups after a meal, they regurgitate meat from the hunt. The pups, too young to hunt on their own, lick the meat from around their mouths. It is believed by some that this licking behavior has been passed down in the DNA, causing dogs to instinctively do it sometimes.
Is it Safe For Dogs to Lick You?
Letting your dog lick you is usually harmless. However, don't believe the old myth that dogs' mouths are cleaner than humans' mouths. They are not! Dogs' mouths contain a lot of natural bacteria, which is part of the reason dog bites are so dangerous. However, this bacteria probably won't cause you harm unless it gets into an open wound. There has never been a documented case of illness that started from a dog licking a human. But hey, you might just think it's gross.
How to Get Your Dog to Stop Licking You
You might think dog kisses are disgusting. Or, you might just feel like enough is enough. Getting your dog to stop licking is usually a matter of denying attention when he does it. Turn your head away. Stop touching him or looking at him. Get up and walk away if you need to. As soon as the licking stops, reward him with attention and affection. Over time, your dog will usually get the point.
If you want the occasional gentle kiss from your dog, you can train your dog by attaching a word/phrase like "kiss" or "gimme sugar" to the behavior. Reward the gentle kiss, say on the cheek or chin (or maybe just your hand depending on your preferences). Then deny attention when it gets out of hand. If you need help with this and other training, consider hiring a dog trainer.
Although it's rare, dogs can actually suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, often brought on by prolonged stress and anxiety. If licking occurs constantly (and usually involves the licking of objects, surfaces and self in addition to humans), then it may be a real problem. Talk to your veterinarian about your concerns. Your vet might refer you to an animal behaviorist for help. Your vet or veterinary behaviorist may also prescribe medication, though this is ideally a last resort.