Why do dogs lick? In this guide we will help you to work out why your dog is licking you, and their reasons for their preferred location to lick, whether that’s people’s hands, faces or something else entirely! We’ll also look at why dogs lick excessively, and what to do about a dog constantly licking.
Why dogs lick
Licking is in a dog’s nature. They do it instinctively for a number of reasons, but sometimes it’s also learned behavior. But why do dogs lick people? Almost all dogs will lick their owners – some more than others. And Labradors are often at the wetter end of the spectrum. But not every dog licks as much as his friends. For example, our 4 year old chocolate girl Rachael rarely licks, whereas fox red Lab Tess will barely ever leave an encounter without having made her damp mark.
A dog’s tongue is a very important organ. Unlike us, they don’t have hands and they can’t speak. They use their tongues for many reasons – to clean, communicate, show affection, explore their environment – and to deal with stress.
When pups are born their mother licks them. Not only to clean them and help them go to the toilet, but also to comfort them. Both licking and being licked releases endorphins – feel good hormones – that gives your dog pleasure and comfort. It’s natural treatment for anxiety. So you’ll find highly strung dogs might resort to licking when something make them nervous. Or a dog might lick when he’s had a frightening experience with a person or another dog. Dogs can even start licking when they’re bored.
Instinctively, when dogs were in the wild, pups ready to be weaned would lick their mother’s mouth for regurgitated food. Dogs still have this instinct and so another reason why dogs lick could be that they’re hungry. In doggy social encounters, licking another’s face is a way of acknowledging who’s the leader. The submissive dog licks to say: I come in peace and I don’t want to make any trouble.
Dog licking is also used to explore their environment. Not only to taste what’s around, but also to smell. Dogs, and most other animals, have what is called the Jacobson’s organ at the back of their palate for analysing specific chemicals called pheromones. Dogs can use their tongues to flick scents up through their mouths to this organ. So this brings us to explaining why do dogs lick people.
What does it mean when a dog licks you?
Do you leave cuddles with a damp face, or legs covered in drool? You’re not alone! Many dogs like a good lick. With some, if you want a cuddle, they want to turn it into a kiss. You might enjoy your dog’s kisses or find it irritating. The important thing to realise is that it’s part of your dog being a dog.
To your dog you’re part of his pack. So the answer to the question “Why do dogs dogs lick people” is mostly for all of the same instinctive reasons that dogs use their tongues. They might like the taste, want to show submission or affection, or be trying to communicate something with you.
Reasons and motivations
The motivation behind your dog’s lick can be guessed at by looking at where he’s licking, and what the situation is that prompted him to begin. Some dogs will lick simply for affection, and in greeting in the morning or when you’ve been away. Or use their tongue to feel and catch the tastes of your clothes and skin – especially when you’ve been in contact with other dogs.
Some dogs will lick you for attention. Maybe they want to go outside, or you’re a bit late with their dinner. Your dog might be prompting you to pet them or asking for some comfort and reassurance when something is making them nervous. So why do dogs lick people? It’s their way of making contact with their owner. Now you may be wondering whether licking different parts of you means anything.
Why do dogs lick your face?
As we’ve discussed, when a puppy is young and with their mother, they’ll lick her mouth to encourage her to regurgitate food. So licking faces is instinctive behavior which pays serious dividends.
You’ll know that puppies will lick your face every moment they get a chance. As dogs get older this behavior usually lessens. However, if you’re happy for your dog to lick your face, then you’ll continue to reward this behavior into adulthood. Even if you don’t mean to – by giving him physical attention or even more rewarding food treats.
Dogs licking faces then becomes a learned behavior, reinforced accidentally by the owner. If you want to reduce your dog’s face licking, then immediately removing your attention when he does so should over time help to reduce it. Remember that if you like your Lab licking your face, you should be even more careful about making sure that he is up to date with his deworming. Licking hands can mean different things with different dogs.
Why do dogs lick your hands
Dogs licking hands may be a way to get attention. To ask for a cuddle and a pet, to remind you that it’s time for food. They might even be telling you that their water bowl is empty or that they need to go outside.
Your dog could even be telling you that there’s a serious problem somewhere. So if your dog is licking your hands, or another part of your body more intently than usual it might be an idea to look around and see if something’s wrong. Your dog could also be licking your hands simply because they taste or smell so good.
On a daily basis, how much yummy stuff do you pick up? Preparing your meals, snacks, the kids’ dinner. Unpacking the shopping, clearing up the kitchen counters. Or even the hand cream you just put on. Every time you touch something that your dog might like the taste of, you leave tiny particles on your skin that his sensitive tongue can detect. It’s also been hypothesised that dogs like the salty taste of our skin, especially if we have sweaty palms on a hot sunny day! This applies to feet as well.
Why does my dog lick my feet?
Dog licking feet is usually because our sweaty, sometimes stinky, feet have picked up lots of interesting tastes and smells. They like our socks and shoes for the same reason. Your dog could also be licking your feet, and other parts of your body, for the salt in your sweat.
Possibly your dog even discovered at some point that he gets a huge reaction when he licks your feet and toes – and uses this as a game to get quick attention. A bit of training should be able to cure them if this has become an annoying habit.
Why Do Dogs Lick Themselves?
Dogs, like most other animals, use their tongues to keep themselves clean. When a dog is injured, they will instinctively lick the wounded area. The licking rids the wound of dirt and helps to remove dead skin particles. Their saliva is also mildly antiseptic and so the licking can prevent infection. However, if your dog has a serious injury, or a wound is not healing as expected, you should take him to the vet to be checked over. Excessive licking can make a wound worse and prevent healing.
Dogs will often lick themselves when they’re worried. As already mentioned, licking releases endorphins that make them feel happier, calmer and relieves stress. Unfortunately this can lead to compulsive licking behavior, which we will look at below. You dog might also lick themselves, you or their toys simply because they find the act of doing so enjoyable. If they find licking fun, it’s self-rewarding, and they will do it more often. Licky dogs are often dogs who simply love licking!
Why do dogs lick their paws?
All dogs will lick their paws from time to time for cleaning purposes. They will lick between their toes or nibble gently at their pads to remove dirt particles and clean the fur. However, when your dog is constantly licking one or more paws chances are that there’s something wrong.
Dogs’ paws are a common point for injuries and accidents – they could have a small puncture wound from standing on something, or their pads could be have been hurt while out running. Your dog could also have something stuck between their toes. This is also an area where they can easily get fungal and parasitic infections. Another possibility is an allergy from a plant or chemical they encountered.
So if your pup is licking their paws all the time, examine them carefully – especially between the toes. If there is any redness, swelling, or anything else that’s worrying a trip to your vet is called for.
Why do dogs lick their lips?
Dog lip licking is a little different to the other examples of dog licking discussed above. Dogs lick their lips when they’re worried about something. The act of licking their lips is both an appeasement gesture to other dogs, and a sensation that can release hormones which make the dog feel better. So stress is a big cause of lip licking in dogs.
You will see that some very well behaved dogs, who have been trained with physical punishment, may carry out the required behavior – like sitting still in a field of rabbits – but will be constantly licking their lips throughout. This is because they’re continuing to sit through fear of punishment, and the licking is a result of the stressful battle with their internal desires.
When a dog is trained with positive reinforcement they remain seated because they’ve learnt that the anticipated happy outcome of staying still is even more rewarding and fun to look forward to than the distractions.
Why dogs lick each other
Much of the licking between dogs is linked to natural and instinctive pack behavior – starting with the licking that goes on between a mother and her pups. When they meet up, a lower-ranking dog will show submission to the more dominant dog by licking their muzzle while lowering their head and averting their eyes.
Dogs often sniff and lick each other’s rear ends which we find quite disgusting. This is to pick up on pheromones – the hormones that play a role in mating. When dogs are already friends, they often trade “kisses” in welcome and to show affection. They might also groom each other with licking. When one of your dogs, however, licks his pal excessively it might be because his friend has a health problem in that area – a cut, infection or even a tumor.
Now we’ve had a look at why dogs lick people, themselves and other dogs. But your concern might be that your dog is licking the carpet, the floor, your bedding, the furniture or some other objects.
Why dogs lick household objects
When dogs lick household surfaces their action often leaves us wondering what they could possibly find so interesting there. All dogs occasionally lick surfaces because, as mentioned before, they use their tongues to explore the environment. There might be small particles of food left behind or a really interesting new smell.
However, if your dog licks surfaces and objects almost all the time you shouldn’t simply write it off as annoying behavior. Especially if it hasn’t happened before. This could be a sign of a health problem. In fact, you need to consider looking deeper into the issue when any dog licking becomes excessive.
Why is my dog licking so much?
Do you think that your dog licks more than most?
We first need to look at how much is ‘too much’, because it’s a very personal thing. One owner might find the occasional lick fine, but anything beyond hourly is too much. Another might only feel overwhelmed after a good twenty minutes of having their hand licked.
The amount that your dog licks will be dictated by their genetics, your response to their licking, how rewarding their licking is to them, and how they’re feeling.
Some dogs lick an awful lot. Our lovely Tess is one of these dogs. She’s always got her tongue out, approaching you with damp enthusiasm on a daily basis.
A dog constantly licking, but who’s done this since they were small, is probably just doing so because it brings them enjoyment.
But if the excessive licking is new behavior, it can be a sign that there is something medical which needs to be looked at by your vet.
Dog constantly licking
Excessive licking can be a sign of either a physical or psychological health problem.
As we’ve discussed already, excessive focus on a particular area can be a sign of an injury. A toothache or a sore throat can also make dogs lick more than usual.
One study found that a common cause of constant licking was nausea and stomach discomfort. This can be from something simple like a change in diet or a new medication, to more serious conditions like liver disease or cancer.
As discussed, dogs lick when they are stressed and anxious. This could occasionally turn into an obsessive-compulsive disorder which can be treated by an animal behavior therapist. Your vet might even prescribe medication that can help.
So if you dog starts licking much more than usual, you should definitely consider a visit to the vet. They’ll be able to determine whether your pet has a health problem and prescribe appropriate treatment.
Why do dogs lick – a summary
Dogs lick. They use their tongues for various reasons as part of their natural instinctive behavior. So why do dogs lick people? Mostly for the same reasons.
You do, however, need to be careful not to accidentally promote licking behavior – especially if you don’t like it.
Your pup might also lick you to get your attention for a particular reason. Consider this if your dog’s licking is not their normal display of affection.
Various health problems can cause increased and unusual licking. So if your dog starts licking constantly make an appointment with your vet.
Is you Lab a licker? Share your story with us in the comments section below.
Readers Also Liked
- Bécuwe-Bonnet, V. et al. 2011. Gastrointestinal disorders in dogs with excessive licking of surfaces. Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
- Bluecross. 2018. Pet advice – why do dogs lick? Bluecross for Pets.
- Burke, A. 2018. Why does my dog lick my feet. American Kennel Club.
- Tynes, V.V. 2008. Help! My dog licks everything. DVM360.
The Labrador Site Founder
Pippa Mattinson is the best selling author of The Happy Puppy Handbook, the Labrador Handbook, Choosing The Perfect Puppy, and Total Recall.
She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program
Pippa's online training courses were launched in 2019 and you can find the latest course dates on the Dogsnet website