Why Do Dogs Lick You?
Not every dog is a Queen, elegantly minding their manners while they sit gently beside you and watch you read a book or eat dinner. More often than not, our dogs do strange, unexplainable things (like absentmindedly licking your leg while you hang out together on the couch). When those weird behaviors pop up, it’s easy to want to anthropomorphize (a fancy word for putting more human thoughts on your dog than they really have) your pet and assign human rationale to their “thought process.”
But, no matter how much we love our pets, in the end, they are animals. While that can be hard for some people to stomach (they are our babies, after all!), accepting that fact can actually create a stronger bond between you and your dog. When you can truly understand the real motivation behind their behaviors, and put aside thoughts of your dog doing things specifically to annoy you or just to be stubborn, it allows you to interact with them on a whole other, more natural level.
To that end, let’s take a look at one of their weirder behaviors… their habit of licking us. And that behavior doesn’t exist just to annoy us, even though it can definitely be more than a little annoying sometimes.
Is Licking a Form of Dominance?
One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about their dogs licking them is that the licking behavior is a form of dominance. It’s actually very common for pet owners to assume that the licking is a way to show the owner that they think they’re your boss. Seems pretty rude, right?
The real truth behind our dogs’ licking behaviors is actually quite the opposite! When it comes to dog behavior, licking is usually seen by most behaviorists as a sign of submissiveness. When it comes to the way that dogs interact with other dogs, the vast majority of the time, the dog that is doing the licking is doing it to appease the pack leader (or any other, more dominant dog).
However, most of the submissive licking seen was being done to the inside of the dominant dog’s mouth. Since most humans are not nearly as likely to let our dogs lick our open mouths like they would do to other dogs, that behavior has naturally had to adapt to include licking other, more available parts of our bodies (like our arms and legs). That’s not to say they don’t try to lick the inside of our mouth, though!
So You’re Telling Me Licking Isn’t Like Kissing?
Despite the fact that our dogs descended from wild animals, we all know our dogs are tame, domestic sweethearts. They’re our pride and joys. Because we, as humans, tend to assume our dogs feel the same emotions that we do, we also assume that they love us just as much as we love them. So it goes to reason that, obviously, when they’re licking us that means they are actually just trying to give us kisses, right?
Well, the answer is a little bit yes and a little bit no.
When our dogs lick us it is a form of affection, yes, but it is also likely a submissive one (as we discussed above). However, licking is also a behavior that puppies will use with their mothers to help both of them feel secure and comfortable. It is a very common pack behavior that many wild dogs also use when they greet a returning pack member. So, while it’s not officially “kissing” in the way that we commonly think of it, it can definitely still be a way that they show affection.
Licking Can Be Biologically Related To Hunger!
Stay with us here. While the idea that your dog licks you as a form of affection (AKA “awww, she’s giving me kisses!”) is endearing, the actual biological truth may disturb you.
According to Alexandra Horowitz, author of the book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, when your dog licks you they may actually be trying to get you to vomit. Sounds weird, right? Here is a direct quote: “Researchers of wild canids - wolves, coyotes, foxes, and other wild dogs - report that puppies lick the face and muzzle of their mother when she returns from a hunt to her den - in order to get her to regurgitate for them.”
Much like baby birds, our dog’s ancestors were used to getting their food straight from their mother’s mouth when they were young. This was especially common before the puppy’s teeth came in and they were able to chew their own food. Biological imperatives like this can be very difficult to break, and this likely explains why they continue to do the behavior even as adult, domesticated animals. We’re no doctors, but that’s pretty gross, right?
However, if you think about it, that may actually mean your dog really does see you as their mother. And that’s at least a little flattering, right?
In Some Cases, Licking Might Mean Nothing At All!
To recap so far we’ve learned that licking can be a subtle form of submission, a show of affection, and even a way to get food. In some cases, it can even be a combination of all three at the same time!
However, sometimes licking really doesn’t mean anything at all. Your dog might just think that you smell particularly tasty or salty at that moment, or you may have just gotten out of the shower and are still covered with water droplets. They might just be bored! Without really being able to ask our pets why they do things and how they feel, we’ll never really be able to discover the answer. The best we can do is to use the context surrounding the licking to see if we can figure it out.
Important Health Information
Far be it for us to tell you that you shouldn’t let your dog lick you. Whether or not you allow them to do that is ultimately up to you.
But… and this is a big one… it is very important that you remember that your pet was very likely just licking themselves moments before deciding to come lick you. It is a myth that dogs’ mouths are cleaner than human mouths. It’s actually impossible to compare the cleanliness of dogs and human mouths, it’s a little bit like apples and oranges.
Both our mouths and our dogs' mouths are home to hundreds and hundreds of different types of microbes. While there is some overlap between the different species of microbes, there is also a whole lot of difference. Introducing microbes to your mouth that were not meant to be there may be totally harmless… but it also may cause an overgrowth that can lead to disease. While not many of those microbes are “zoonotic” (meaning that they can’t be passed from one species to another), there are a few that can be. You have to decide for yourself whether that is a risk you are willing to take. No judgement from us!
Like it or not, licking is a canine behavior that is here to stay. Understanding why it happens, so that you can discover the true, biological meaning and not the human explanation we assign to it, will bring you even closer to your dog. Your dog may not actually be your baby, but the human-canine bond is one of the strongest bonds in recorded history. Appreciate your “baby” for who he or she truly is, and you can open up a whole, deeper relationship you never knew was possible.