Why do dogs lick you? (and how to stop it)

December 23, 2023 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Dog licking a man's face
Dog licking a man's face

Some owners love getting a slobbery kiss from their dog, while others end up wrestling their pet away to avoid getting licked.

But why do dogs lick people?

There are a few theories, which we look at, as well as how to stop a dog from licking if it's excessive or annoying.

Before we start, one important note. If you're worried about how your dog is behaving, it could be related to an underlying health condition. Always see your vet first. (It might even be covered by your dog insurance.)

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OK, now let's get into it.

It's (mostly) normal dog behavior

When a dog is born, its mother immediately licks it to help it breathe. Its mother will also lick it to clean it up.

Dogs pick up this behavior and apply it to other dogs. And because they may see humans as part of their pack, they see no difference between licking a human or another dog.

It’s something they’ve learned to do from a young age, and they feel good doing it. Licking can release endorphins in dogs, and it helps them relax, so they enjoy licking their humans.

They like the taste

A pragmatic reason dogs lick people is that they like the taste of salty sweat on our skin. This may explain why some dogs seem to enjoy licking people’s feet, where there are lots of sweat glands. (Yum!)

And it’s worth remembering that what tastes good to dogs is very different from what we find enjoyable. Dogs may also be attracted to feet because of the range of smells and tastes you pick up on your skin while walking around. There will be plenty of interesting things there that your dog will want to explore with its tongue.

Some people find their dog excited to go straight for a kiss on the mouth, while others may find their hand gets the attention. Those are both areas where dogs may be able to taste a trace of the food you have been eating or handling, which can send their licking into overdrive.

Ears may get some attention from dogs because of the salty taste of ear wax. Again, not something many humans enjoy (we hope!) but it may feel like a treat to a dog.

Licking gets them attention

As well as affection and respect, dogs can lick to get attention. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise because it usually works.

They may want to play, have some general interaction with their owner, or eat (some people say if they lick your mouth, it’s a sign they’re hungry).

This is also a learned behavior, but it's a behavior they’ve taught us. When they lick, we react. However, this can become a problem when the licking becomes excessive.

It could be a sign of respect

Some people believe dogs also learn to lick dogs that are higher up the food chain and then apply that to humans.

This submissive behavior is attributed to "pack" or "dominance theory." However, this theory is based on a study that is decades old and relates to wolves.

Many experts now believe dominance theory and alpha animals do not apply to the relationships between dogs and how they view their owners.

For starters, dogs probably realize their owners are different species. So although your dog may love and respect you, it's probably not because it thinks you're the leader of a pack.

Is it safe to let a dog lick you?

It’s important to remember where a dog’s tongue could have been before it licked your face. Dogs lick each other, they lick themselves, and some even eat poop.

Thousands of people let their dogs lick them every day, and hospitals are not inundated with owners turning up sick. However, it’s likely that licking does make people sick occasionally.

It’s probably best to avoid letting a dog lick a young child or someone with a weak immune system. And if you know a dog has licked your hands, make sure you wash them before preparing food.

The bottom line? It’s your choice to let your dog lick you, but be aware of the consequences.

How to stop a dog from licking you

Licking shows affection, but it can become annoying if it is constant or at inappropriate times.

The best way to train a dog to stop licking is to not give it attention when it does. And the younger the dog is when you start the training, the easier it will be.

When your dog starts licking too much, you should stand up, not talk to it, and walk out of the room.

Once you’ve shown your pet that it can’t rely on licking to get attention, you will be able to return the affection when your dog gives you a kiss (although it’s best to avoid licking back).

Digby Bodenham
UK engagement team lead

Digby is an experienced journalist in various fields but has specialized in insurance for more than six years. Before joining ManyPets in 2013 he was part of the editorial teams of various magazines, including Retail Week and Drapers. He has a degree in journalism and a cat called Potato.