Written by Tamsin De La Harpe
It is no surprise to us dog lovers that our dogs are highly sensitive canine "empaths." And they love to lick us. Whether it's licking our hands after eating a burger or licking our face when crying, licking is one of the primary ways dogs interact with us.
Mostly, licking is a sign of love and affection. But the reason that dogs lick us is actually more complicated and nuanced than when we think. All kinds of things are going on when they lap our face. So let's look at why dogs lick us so much and what the science behind this behavior says.
Simply put, a dog licks us when we pet them or cuddle them to return the favor. They're just giving us the same love and attention they’re getting from us. When dogs get attention from us, they get a significant surge of feel-good hormones like oxytocin. In fact, bonding time between owners and their dogs drastically improves your dog's quality of life.
Naturally, they improve our lives too. If you want to read more about the benefits of having a dog, you can see our article here.
So when we pet dogs, it feels good to them. In fact, unless a dog has anxiety over being touched or in pain, petting and cuddling make them feel loved. Their instinctive way to return that love is to lick you. They may lick our hands or any part of our body they can reach, but typically, what they really want to lick is our face.
Note: a common mistake is to try to pet agitated dogs to calm them down. If a dog is in a state of high anxiety, fear, or aggression, please do not try to pet them. In the best case scenario, the petting actually reinforces their feelings. In the worst case scenario, the dog may bite out of stress.
Even though face-licking is not ideal for hygiene reasons, to a dog, a face is both a show of affection and respect. Among dogs themselves, puppies will lick the faces of their elders, or submissive dogs will lick the faces of dogs higher up the pecking order.
Closely bonded dogs may even spend time licking each other's faces before they go to bed. It's not even unusual for a dog and a cat to spend time grooming each other, with particular attention to the facial area. So, although we generally teach our dogs not to lick our face, it is actually one of their primary ways of communicating that they both love and respect us.
Therefore, even if we don't want them to lick our faces, it's a good idea to redirect them to licking our hands or arms. Being allowed to show their affection naturally is good for a dog's psychological well-being, just like being allowed to hug a loved one is good for us.
Showing us love isn't the only reason dogs lick us. Of course, if your hands are greasy with something yummy, they’ll lick any remnants of food they can find. Sometimes, dogs also lick us or nudge us to get our attention. This often happens when we are absorbed in our phones, and they want a cuddle. They may also lick us to wake us up, often targeting the toes or face.
It's important to understand licking creates a physiological feedback loop within the dog's brain. This is much the same with humans. When we are sad, and we smile, it sends an unconscious signal to our brain that maybe we aren't that sad after all, and so the act of smiling can sometimes trick our brain into slightly lifting our spirits.
*Note: this doesn't mean we should mask or repress our emotions. Only that bodies and brains send signals back and forth, and it isn't a one-way street for either dogs or humans.
In another example, if we are stressed and anxious, our bodies are usually tense. Just the action of physically relaxing the body can tell our brains to switch off the fight/flight response and lower our anxiety. And so it is with dogs too. Licking is a soothing action. Dogs will often lick their paws to soothe themselves, or they may lick surfaces if they have digestive upsets.
If you find that your dog is licking its paws excessively, read our article here.
This means that dogs don't just lick us to show us love but that the action of licking triggers a relaxation response. It reduces the stress hormones in their bodies and helps them feel comforted. This is why compulsive licking can sometimes become a coping mechanism for anxious dogs.
Dogs also lick us when they sense something is wrong, either emotionally or physically. This brings us to the two other significant reasons that dogs lick us.
Many dogs will make it their mission to lick any sores or wounds you have. This is part of their natural instinct to clean a wound. Although dogs' mouths are typically associated with being "dirty," and a bite can lead to severe infection, their saliva is actually antibacterial. It isn't as effective as suitable medication, but by licking wounds, they can reduce some kinds of bacterial infections.
This does not mean you should let your dog lick an open wound! But it is a normal response for them to try to clean your cuts and scrapes the only way they know.
It is also worth noting if your dog spends time licking, pawing, or fussing over any part of your body or at specific times when they weren't before. A dog's nose is up to 100 000 times more acute than ours. It is not uncommon for dogs to be able to smell diseases, illness or even early signs of pregnancy. Not that we’re saying you can call in sick for work with a stomach bug just because your dog’s started licking you!
Specially trained service dogs and the occasional pet dog can also sense chemical changes in their owners and can warn of epileptic seizures or blood sugar issues for diabetics. Although it is pretty rare for a pet dog to warn its owner of health problems, it does happen. And licking can be one way they may be trying to communicate with you.
Not only do dogs know when we are crying, but it’s also very important to them to interact with us when we’re upset, and licking our faces is one of the main ways they do this. Most pet parents know very well their dogs actually understand quite a bit and are good at reading us, but there is also a lot of research on this subject.
Firstly, dogs understand human emotional expressions very well. Whether it's the tone of our voice, our body language, or our facial expression, dogs have a functional knowledge of what we are feeling at all times. They also naturally adapt their behavior to our feelings, often without us noticing. For instance, if we are stressed, dogs often start displaying their own stress behaviors, such as hiding, barking or shaking.
In fact, dogs are so in tune with us that they show the same levels of stress when they hear a baby cry that humans do. And when they see a human cry, they naturally focus their attention on that person.
Studies show that when someone is crying, dogs will direct their attention at that person, ignoring anybody else who may be laughing, humming, or doing something else. In fact, this level of empathy runs so deep that most dogs will sniff, nudge, and lick a complete stranger pretending to cry, even if their own owner is present.
And of course, since licking is how they soothe themselves, they usually try to lick the face of the crying person.
Occasionally you may be petting or playing with an excited dog and see them lick the air. The simple explanation for this behavior is that the licking is like a reflex. They can do it instinctively in their excitement to show affection, even if they’re only licking the air. Reflexive action is common in dogs. One example is if you lower a small dog into a swimming pool, you may see them moving their little legs even though they aren't actually in the water yet.
Another example is if you scratch their tummy and cause their leg to scratch the air. This is just a matter of the mind/body connection in dogs. If their brains are getting signals that they are about to be in the water, they will start to swim even if they aren't actually in the water yet. In the same way, if you are petting them and they want to lick you, their tongue might mimic the action of licking.
There are a few reasons dog’s lick their lips:
Dogs lick their lips as a subtle way to appease you if they think you are angry. It is worth noting that dogs do this because this is often overlooked by owners, and can signal stress and anxiety. Other appeasing behaviors include looking away or yawning.
It’s very common for a dog to cry out or yelp when they’re in pain but more docile dogs are more likely to lick their lips. They might still cry out if the pain or discomfort becomes too much but if you’re worried your pooch has injured their leg, make sure you’re watching their mouth and not just listening for a yelp when checking them over. In the wild, crying out might alert predators of potentially injured prey so it makes sense their brain will first try to address the problem with some self soothing licking.
And the most obvious reason dogs lick their lips; food! Whether they’ve managed to get their chops into something nice and messy so they’ve got it all over their face or whether they’ve just had their dinner - without opposable thumbs and eating utensils, their muzzles are going to get messy when eating. If your dog wanders up to you licking their lips and looking fairly pleased with themselves, make sure they haven’t just been for a counter surf, bin raid or a recon mission around the kitchen!
The happy news is unlike many behaviors that people misinterpret in dogs; licking us is usually just a sign of a happy dog giving us affection. Dogs are sensitive to our moods too. They can lick us to comfort us when we are upset, clean any wounds, get our attention, or just show us love. Even if we don't want them licking our faces, allowing your dog to lick the back of your hand or arm when you are snuggling allows them to express their love and deepen the bond between you.