Q:My dog licks my hands and face a lot. They will also lick the water off my legs when I get out of the shower and try to lick the lotion off my skin. Is this licking behavior normal?
A: When your dog is licking you occasionally or to show affection, it is completely normal. But when licking becomes excessive or obsessive, there could be behavioral issues to blame.
Most dog owners don’t mind it when their four-legged best friend gives them the occasional lick. After all, is there anything more adorable than getting attacked with dog kisses when you walk in the door after a long day at work? If you’re simply getting licked by your pup when you get home, that’s totally normal and, if you ask us, a very sweet gesture. However, there are a few other reasons why your dog could be licking you.
Reasons Why Dogs Lick People
To Show Affection or Empathy
“In most cases, when dogs lick a person, especially as a greeting, it is a sign of affection,” says Mary R. Burch, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist and the American Kennel Club’s Good Citizen director.
Licking can also be your dog’s way of showing empathy. A study published in the journal Animal Cognition showed that some dogs lick humans when trying to comfort them, which is a dog behavior that’s consistent with empathy and concern. If you’ve ever had a bad day and noticed that your dog licked your face or tears when you were crying, you’re not imagining their concern—they really do care about your feelings! (Ok, now we are crying.)
“Just like humans often explore the world by using our hands to touch or pick up items, dogs explore the world with their mouths,” says dog trainer Chelsea Murray, CPDT-KA KPA-CTP CTDI. Sniffing and licking is just your pup’s way of gathering intel about where you were and which dogs you’ve petted (yep, they know when you’ve “cheated” on them).
They Want Attention
Licking can also be an attention-seeking behavior.
“Dogs are social creatures, and they respond to our behaviors,” says Dr. Burch. “If you squeal and laugh and act like you are enjoying canine ‘kisses,’ there is a good chance your dog will continue to lick you.”
Even if you AREN’T a fan of slobbery dog kisses, Murray says you might accidentally provide “exciting attention or stimuli like saying, ‘ahhh, stop it!’ and waving an arm each time the tongue touches the skin.” While you may not think of this as positive reinforcement, “this reaction from the human can accidentally reinforce the behavior of licking, and the dog learns this is a great way to get the human’s attention.”
Remember that not everyone loves dog slobber, so you may want to consider training your dog to stop licking on command (more on how to do that later).
They’re Stressed Out
If your furry best friend is licking you, an object, or themselves nonstop, it could be a sign of stress, anxiety or another behavioral issue such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). That’s because licking is a calming technique for dogs and they “sometimes lick to displace another behavior, such as anxiety,” explains Shelbe Rice, DVM, a veterinarian at Elberton Animal Hospital in Georgia.
So if your pup is in a new or stressful environment (think: in the waiting room at the vet) and is fervently licking their paws or giving your legs nonstop kisses, “your dog could be licking to calm themselves down,” says Dr. Rice.
However, if your dog is licking you or another pup but doesn’t seem otherwise distressed, you don’t need to freak out—this can actually be a beneficial, self-soothing behavior. “Licking releases endorphins, which can help calm and soothe dogs,” Murray says, adding that some pet parents actually encourage this behavior with things like a KONG chew toy, a Toppl treat dispensing toy, and lick mats to “provide the dog with a safe and species-appropriate licking outlet.”
If you’ve tried these distractions and notice your dog persistently licking you or something else, it’s worth taking them to the vet to rule out any underlying issues and talk through treatment options.
We Taste Good
Dogs have very sensitive noses and some of the things we have or put on our bodies smell and taste interesting to them, explains Dr. Rice. Whether you just got out of the shower, lotioned up or came back from the gym, your dog may want to investigate any of the following:
- Soap/body wash
- Salt from our sweaty skin (We still can’t decide if this is disgusting or kind of sweet.)
Why do dogs lick other dogs?
- It’s a sign of affection
- It’s a sign of fear or submission (aka a type of appeasement behavior to show they don’t want conflict)
To determine whether your dog is licking out of affection or fear, Dr. Rice says to pay attention to their body language. “For example, a dog bouncing around and wagging their tail while licking another dog is probably showing affection, while a dog rolling on their back while licking is probably showing submission.”
Should I let my dog lick me?
Whether you should let your dog lick you is a personal decision. It’s generally safe to let your dog lick you on your face or hands, although some bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter, can be spread from dogs to humans through saliva. Those with weakened immune systems, along with children, the elderly, and pregnant people, should be a little more cautious, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If you fall into one of these groups you can minimize your risk by washing your hands (or face) with warm, soapy water after playing with your pup.
However, it’s important to pay attention to when this behavior may signal a behavioral problem.
“A canine kiss on the cheek is fine every now and then, but licking should not be so frequent or intense that it is a bother,” says Dr. Burch. Licking becomes excessive when the dog can’t stop it and that will require a trip to your vet.
When is dog licking a problem?
Dog licking becomes a problem when it’s excessive or is caused by anxiety or another behavioral problem.
According to Dr. Rice, pet parents should contact their vet if:
- The dog is excessively licking themselves and causing sores (for example: lick granulomas)
- They’re licking so excessively that it’s obstructing their normal daily activities.
How to Stop a Dog from Licking You
If your pup is licking themselves or you so excessively that it’s interfering with their daily activities, it’s worth visiting the vet to rule out any underlying health issues. If your vet gives the green light, consider consulting a trainer to rule out behavioral problems. A trainer may also be able to provide insight and tips for managing your dog’s problematic licking through exercise, brain games, and other soothing techniques. Here, some trainer- and vet-approved ways to help your dog stop licking you.
- Make sure they’re getting enough activity. Make sure your dog is getting their daily activity needs met to help reduce anxiety and stop this unwanted behavior. Dr. Rice recommends taking your pup for a long walk or playing with them to get out some of that pent-up energy. Brain games like food puzzles can also help tire them out mentally.
- Interrupt the licking. Murray recommends teaching something called a “positive interrupter” to your dog. When your dog is licking and you want them to stop, say a specific phrase, like “That’s all” or “That’s enough,” and then throw some treats on the ground by the dog. “This effectively interrupts the licking and, with your dog’s attention, you can now redirect them to something else you would like them to do, like laying on a mat with a bone, or sitting for treats,” Murray explains.
- Ignore it. “You can send a message that you don’t like licking by abruptly standing up and walking away each time the dog licks you,” Dr. Birch says. “Your attention is important to the dog, and the lesson here is, If you lick, you get no attention." Then, like Murray recommended above, give the dog something else to do that is incompatible with licking, such as a sit and stay command, having them roll over for belly scratches, or playing fetch.
Should I get my dog a salt lick?
Some companies make salt licks for dogs (they’re essentially a block made from pure salt), but Dr. Rice cautions against giving them to your pup. Though dogs need some sodium in their diets just like we do (and most commercial foods have enough to meet their daily requirements), too much salt can actually harm your dog.
“I wouldn’t recommend [salt licks], since salt can actually be an issue (it can exacerbate kidney disease and heart disease),” Dr. Rice says. “Horses need salt licks to encourage drinking and get minerals, but dogs do not.”
The Bottom Line
There are many possible reasons for dog licking, but usually it’s because they want to show affection or it’s a learned behavior. If your dog’s licking is happening within normal limits, then there’s typically nothing to worry about (and you should enjoy the free doggy kisses!). However, if your dog’s licking has become excessive or interferes with their daily activities, it may be worth taking them to the vet to rule out any underlying health conditions such as anxiety or OCD.
Learn more about dog behavior: