When a dog licks your face, does it mean they are kissing you? This is one of the most common assumptions, and the reason most dog owners think this behavior to be cute. So let's talk about some of the reasons why do dogs lick your face or the face of other dogs, and whether this is a behavior that we should encourage or train out of our pets.
Table of Contents
In this article we will discuss the following:
- What does it mean when a dog licks you?
- Is it a health risk when a dog licks your face?
- Should you train your dog not to lick your face?
- How To discourage face-licking in dogs
What Does It Mean When a Dog Licks You?
The behavior is often directed towards our face and mouths, so it makes sense to think that our pet dogs are showing us affection with kisses when they lick us. This interpretation is reinforced as the behavior often occurs when we have been apart from our animals or we are showing them affection ourselves.
However, the act of licking the mouth of another animal in nature is not usually a display of affection. It is more commonly a form of appeasement, submission, or a physical attempt to prompt regurgitation from a parent’s mouth for feeding.
Mouth licking in the wild occurs mainly in the behavior of younger animals towards older ones, and helps to establish an animal’s position in the pack. This can be observed in packs of wolves.
When a dog licks the face of a human, therefore, they are performing a normal social behavior. Your dog might be asking you for something such as food, treats or attention. The more they get what they want from you, the more the behavior is being positively reinforced, and the more they will practice it.
If your dog doesn’t have access to your face, they may lick the nearest body part to solicit the same things. But licking doesn’t always mean your dog wants something from you. Alternatively, they may be participating in a mutual grooming session if you are stroking them and they start to lick you back.
Young puppies can be very “licky”. They will excessively lick the hands of anyone who tries to pet them. This may actually be a sign that they are not comfortable in the situation, and they are asking for more personal space by using their tongue to “push” your hand away. When a puppy is being held and is wriggling away from a person whilst licking, it is a sure sign that this is what may be going on.
Sometimes, a dog could just be licking you because you are tasty. Perhaps a child has food residue on their face or sticky fingers from sweets or chocolate. If you have been physically exerting yourself or the weather is warm then your dog is probably enjoying the salty taste of sweat on your skin.
Is It a Health Risk When a Dog Licks Your Face?
In most cases, dog saliva is not a health risk when the recipient of the dog’s licks are healthy and the skin is intact. However, there are still some risks from allowing your dog to lick your face, and animal experts recommend owners not to be overly affectionate.
Wound licking is not recommended, whether a dog is licking your wounds or their own. It can provide bacteria with a constant moist environment where they are most likely to thrive and cause infection. Your dog’s mouth is alive with bacteria. For this reason washing your hands after petting a dog that loves to lick is a sensible idea.
Discouraging dogs to lick the faces of small children is also recommended to avoid them licking inside of a child’s mouth and making them ill. Children are less likely to have control over an exuberant dog and its affection towards them, so supervision is always advisable.
Should You Train Your Dog Not to Lick Your Face?
Many dog owners love to have their pet dogs “give them kisses” as it makes them feel loved. If you are comfortable with your dog’s behavior, and you're aware of the potential risks of certain situations, then there may be no need to train your dog not to lick your face.
But have you considered whether other people are comfortable with it?
If your dog is used to licking you, they are likely to generalize this behavior and practice it with all human beings, adults and children alike. Other people may not be as pleased about your dog’s show of “love” for them or for their kids.
Your dog’s behavior could also trigger aggression in other people’s dogs if they are possessive of their owners. If a person says hello to your dog, and they are then bombarded with enthusiastic licking and excited energy, that person’s own dog could end up in a fight with yours.
Another potential problem with a dog that has not been taught how to behave properly in social situations is that they are too eager to say hello to strangers, and want to get up near the person’s face to do so. If your pet is a big dog, this could feel very intimidating to a stranger. Even if you have a small dog, jumping up at strangers may not be met with open arms, especially in a muddy environment.
How to Discourage Face Licking in Dogs
If you are concerned that your dog’s face-licking habit is a problem, you can train your dog not to do it with these simple training tips.
- Do not give your dog free access to your face for licking.
- Only give your dog attention when they have all four paws on the ground.
- Practice teaching commands like “off” “down” and “sit” to offer your dog alternative good behaviours that will get them what they are looking for (food, treats, play etc.)
- Tell close friends and family to support your efforts by adopting similar behaviours with your dog.
- Reward calm behaviour only with treats, praise and gentle petting.
- Give your dog more opportunities to practice the new behaviours in situations he is guaranteed to succeed (training classes, at home, amongst friends and family, and in other controlled settings).
As much as face licking in dogs can seem adorable, it can also be embarrassing, unpleasant, and unhealthy. If your dog’s face licking is becoming too much, why not try taking it down a notch? There are plenty of other ways that your dog can show you love after all.