Your dog interacts with the world in a number of ways like sniffing, barking, and playing. One of the things they also like to do is lick. Sometimes it’s amusing, sometimes it’s awesome, and sometimes it’s just annoying.
Many dogs will lick everything they come across, including sticks, toys, the carpet, the door, mailboxes, you, your family, or your date. Why do they do this? It’s clearly normal doggy behavior, but what are they trying to do? Read on to unpack this weird habit.
Life Without Thumbs
Dogs, like us, explore the world with all of their senses, although smell is generally more important than sight — especially for scent-oriented breeds. Sight-oriented breeds may use their sense of smell less. Hearing is also very important to dogs, and their hearing is better than yours. A dog that seemingly barks at nothing may actually be responding to another dog he can hear that you can’t, for example, and dogs have a better range than we do in terms of pitch.
When it comes to using the sense of touch, though, dogs don’t have hands or thumbs.Their mouths are the only way they can carry toys, food, or their pups, and are one of the only ways they can physically explore the world. Thinking of it that way, it’s clear why dogs lick so many things: It’s sensory, like walking past a tree in the park and stopping to put your hand on the bark to see how rough it is.
Of course, they also lick to taste, clean their bowls, groom themselves, because they are feeling a little bit nervous, because they have an itchy spot on their skin, or myriad other reasons.
Why Does Your Dog Lick You?
Some people don’t mind being licked by a dog, but other people object to it. The good news is that dog saliva is antibacterial, and that it’s very rare to get any kind of bacteria from your dog licking you. You should wash your hands after handling your dog before eating or preparing food, though.
Dogs lick people for a number of reasons, including:
This is why some dogs will lick strangers, and also why some are more likely to lick you if they haven’t seen you in a while. Licking gives them an extra sense of a person’s appearance in dog terms. Remember that to them, your distinctive scent is more important than your face.
Dogs lick each other for affection, and thus often lick their owners for the same reason. If you are petting your dog and she starts trying to lick you, she’s basically returning the favor and petting you. Yes, sloppy “kisses” are an affectionate thing. Dogs will go for your face if they can get to it, but also any other bare skin.
Dogs may lick you as a greeting. If your dog goes for a kiss when you come home, he’s doing the same thing a wild dog would do when a hunting party returns.
So, why did your dog just walk up behind you while you are walking around in shorts and lick the back of your leg? Probably because you were ignoring her. Dogs will sometimes lick to try and get attention, because they’re bored and want to play, or because they’re lonely. (If this bothers you, ignore the licking and they’ll stop).
Wild dogs and wolves feed puppies by chewing food and spitting it out, which is just a little bit disgusting. You feed your dog, and she thinks of you as a source of food. The way wild dogs ask mommy for dinner is to lick around the mouth, so it’s entirely possible that when your dog tries to lick your face they also want dinner.
- You taste good
Sorry, but you do. Sweat is salty and dogs like the taste of it. If your dog is licking your legs after you get done with a workout, they’re wanting that yummy salt taste. This is also why some dogs will lick your bare feet.
- They think you need grooming
Your dog might think you could use some cleaning and is giving you the same grooming treatment it would give another dog. This is why some dogs will lick you after you brush them, because grooming is a mutual and social thing for them.
Dogs will also try to lick an open wound to clean it, although this should be discouraged as there have been instances of bacteria being transferred this way.
What Is Fine for a Dog to Lick?
Licking is normal dog behavior, and clamping down on it too much will create a stressed and miserable dog. Dogs should be allowed to lick their toys, other dogs, their food bowl, and themselves, within reason. Whether you allow your dog to lick you is up to you. Some people are allergic to dog saliva and may not be able to let their dog lick. Some might be fine with licking, just not the face. Disciplining this behavior works best when your dog is a puppy. You should also not worry about the occasional lick of the carpet, furniture, or items found on walks.
When is Licking a Problem?
Sometimes, licking can indicate a problem. Here’s when you might want to be concerned:
- Excessive licking of paws
Dogs normally lick their paws to clean them, so expect to see some paw licking when returning from a walk or if you had booties on your dog and just took them off. If your dog is licking a paw excessively, check it. They may have something stuck in a pad or between their toes. If you notice any kind of soreness, redness, or discharge where the dog is licking, take him or her to the vet right away as this can indicate a yeast infection, allergies, or both.
- Licking of the carpet or furniture
Watch to see when your dog is doing this, because it’s most often caused by anxiety. For example, if your dog licks the carpet when you put on your shoes to leave, your dog may have separation anxiety. If this is the case, you may want to take steps to reduce it, such as making sure they get a long walk to relieve excess energy or leaving them with a toy.
- Licking the ground while gulping
This is generally a sign of some kind of gastric distress and can indicate that your dog has heartburn or ulcers. If you see this behavior, talk to your vet. A scoop of pure pumpkin puree can help alleviate the distress in the moment, but do your best to keep your pup from licking fabrics.
- Constant licking on themselves or a particular spot
This can mean that your dog is showing obsessive-compulsive behavior, which is usually a result of some kind of prolonged anxiety, stress, or trauma. Anti-anxiety medication can help in conjunction with training and behavior modification. Talk to your vet to see what might be the right combination for your pup.
Licking is normal behavior for dogs and is mostly a sign that they like you. Some such behaviors may indicate that something is wrong with your pup and that you may need to get him or her checked out, however, so it’s important to keep in mind what it looks like when things turn that corner.
Get Your Dog Certified As An Emotional Support Animal!
All in all, it’s important to note that licking can be a normal and healthy behavior for dogs. Some more than others, sure. But as long as you are able to look out for signs of distress or pain while they’re licking and intervene accordingly, you should have no problem with your pup’s licking habit. If you notice that your pup is excessively licking themselves or the furniture/ carpeting at home, it might be time to take them for a checkup with their vet or get them certified as an emotional support animal.
If you think your pup might have what it takes to become an ESA, then head over to our website and take our free pre-qualification test! Caring for your pup properly means understanding why they do what they do – and learning about why dogs lick can go a long way in helping us do just that.