Why Do Dogs Lick You?

Dogs licking their owners or other people is often seen as a sign of affection and that the pet is comfortable with you. While that may be true in many cases, in some instances there may be other explanations for their licking.

Why do dogs lick you? Here we look at some of the reasons.

Affection and Comfort

Speaking to Newsweek, a senior manager at the behavioral sciences team of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Sydney Bartson Queen, explained: "The meaning of a dog lick can depend on how the licks are offered to their people. Long, slurpy kisses that are accompanied by a soft, wiggly body are usually very affectionate gestures.

"Some small kisses at the mouth are sometimes appeasement behaviors, like the way some small puppies lick at the mouths of adult dogs," the ASPCA manager added.

Dr. Mary Burch, a certified applied animal behaviorist who is the director of the American Kennel Club (AKC)'s Family Dog program, says: "Licking can be a sign of affection. It might also give a dog a feeling of security and comfort, just as the dog had when licked by its mother in the litter."

Queen added that licks can also be a way for dogs to gather more information, such as small licks near the mouth. "The licking helps the scents get up to the dog's vomeronasal organ)."

A dog licking a woman's face.
A woman being licked by a dog outdoors. A dog licking a person's face may not just be a sign of affection. Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A Need for Personal Space

Dogs may also offer a lick or two in order to appease the person so that they can be left alone. This tends to happen when a person puts their face too close to the dog's face before they are comfortable, Queen told Newsweek.

"Some dogs are even unintentionally taught to give kisses as a way to maybe create space between them and a person.

"A dog learns that you can get a person's face further away from them by licking it when the person moves away after receiving their "kisses," she explained.

Two puppies playing together.
Two puppies playing together. Some dog licks may be "appeasement behaviors," like the way some small puppies lick at the mouths of adult dogs, according to the ASPCA. Sonsedska/iStock/Getty Images Plus

"The dogs may offer an appeasement lick to show that they aren't threatening, or may even do a lip lick or tongue flick as a stress signal and it happens to touch the person's face," the ASPCA manager said.

So how can you tell whether a dog's lick is a sign of affection or indicative of something else?

Queen told Newsweek the best way to tell is to "look at the body language and behavior of the dog. If the dog looks loose and wiggly and is trying to get to your face, they're probably very comfortable.

"If they offer a lick and slink away, or their body is tense, they may be asking for space," she said.

A man being kissed by his dog.
A man being kissed by his dog at pool in Castellón de la Plana, a city in eastern Spain. Laura Leiva/iStock /Getty Images Plus

Salt or Other Food Craving

Speaking to Newsweek, the AKC's Burch said dog licking can also be more about craving salt than affection.

People have slightly salty skin, especially after engaging in physical activities. So when a dog licks you, the pet may just be after the salt on your skin, Burch explained.

According to Alexandra Horowitz, head of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and author of the book Inside Of A Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, a dog may also lick you because they think you "taste nice," the AKC told Newsweek.

Horowitz says researchers of wild canids, which include wolves, coyotes, foxes and other wild dogs, report that puppies lick their mother's face and muzzle when she returns from a hunt. This is done in a bid to get the mother to regurgitate food for them.

This may explain why you might often find a dog licking your face after you've finished eating, Horowitz says.

A small dog licking a person's hand.
A small dog licking a person's hand. Dogs licking people, particular after a person has exercised, could mean it craves the salt on the human skin. Art_rich/iStock /Getty Images Plus

When Excessive Licking Can Be Bad

When dogs excessively lick people, themselves or objects, it could be a sign of behavioral problems, such as cognitive dysfunction in older dogs, the ASPCA says.

Repetitive licking can be indicative of "compulsive and stereotypic" behavior issues that can "encompass a wide variety of behaviors with many possible causes," the ASPCA explains.

The ASPCA says when dogs feel frustrated, conflicted or stressed, they may display "displacement behaviors, which can then become compulsive over time."

So for example, if a dog suddenly licks itself after their owner has called for them, it could be an expression of anxiety that it is unsure whether it's being called to be punished. The dog expresses this anxiety by "grooming, lip licking, yawning or sniffing the ground."

The ASPCA notes: "Drug therapy is usually necessary to resolve compulsive disorders. But if you can identify the source of conflict early on and reduce or eliminate it (such as conflict between your pets or inconsistent or delayed punishment from you), behavioral drug therapy may not be necessary."

Newsweek has contacted the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Canine Association for further comment.

A dog with its tongue out.
A side view of a dog with its tongue out. When dogs excessively lick themselves or others, it could be a sign of behavioral issues. Fly_dragonfly/iStock/Getty Images Plus