Sugar Overload: Why Do Dogs Lick People So Much?

Ah, dog kisses. There’s probably nothing else in the world that can make you swell with love while simultaneously cringing in disgust. We like it when our dog licks our face because we recognize it as an affectionate gesture from our devoted pal.

At the same time, we hate it because it feels gross – and because we know where that mouth’s been.

Dog kissing a young child
The kisses are coming whether you want them or not.

Seeing that look of complete adoration on your dog’s face as she prepares to give you a tongue bath, it’s hard to view it as anything other than an expression of love. But humans are often guilty of misinterpreting dog behavior, especially when it makes our pets seem smarter, funnier, or just more like people.

Truth is, there are lots of possible reasons why dogs lick people so much. Some of them might surprise you.

Dogs Licking Dogs

Licking is deep-seated behavior in dogs. In fact, the sensation of being licked is the first experience a new pup has when it enters the world, before it has even opened its eyes. The mother dog licks her puppies immediately after they’re born to clean off afterbirth and stimulate breathing.

In the weeks that follow, the mother dog continues to clean her pups by licking. She also licks to stimulate pooping and peeing – something puppies can’t do on their own right away.

Mother dog licking her puppy
Licking bonds mother and pup. Photo Credit: carterse cc

As puppies grow older, they start licking their mother’s muzzle. This is believed to strengthen the bond between mother and offspring, and could be important for the puppy’s long-term psychological development.

Canine licking isn’t just between mother and pups though. A full grown dog may also lick another dog’s snout to express submission. It’s the submissive dog’s way of saying: “I respect your authority.” Or perhaps: “You’re the big dog and I’m just the puppy.”

Why Dogs Lick Humans

With that background information in hand, it’s tempting to conclude that dogs simply transfer their interactions with their canine mothers over to their human parents. On its own, that would be a pretty convincing explanation for licking.

But it’s probably not the whole story. Here’s the full list of reasons why dogs lick people:

Love. If you believe dogs are capable of love, then it’s a pretty safe bet that licking is one of the ways they express it.

Submission. Since dogs lick other dogs to show respect, it’s likely that they lick humans for the same reason.

Comfort. The act of licking – whether it’s human skin or some other material – is comforting to dogs.

Taste. Human skin is salty and may have lotion or other substances on it that dogs want to sample. Human mouths smell like yummy food (probably overwhelmingly so for an animal that can smell as well as dogs can).

Boston Terrier kissing a woman on the mouth
Is it puppy love, or does she just want what you had for lunch?

Training. Licking humans often produces rewards, usually in the form of extra attention. Because the behavior is reinforced, dogs do it over and over again.

Any one of these things could probably explain dog kisses. However, the correct answer could be All of the Above.

How to Stop Dogs From Licking

If your dog licks excessively, you can employ the same sorts of training methods that work for other unwanted behaviors such as barking and humping.

One method is to distract the dog with another activity, such as playing with a toy or following a command. Alternatively, you can simply get up and leave the room whenever the dog licks. Removing your attention – something that’s precious to your dog – is a good way to get your message across.

Your chances of solving the problem are much higher if you understand what the cause of the licking is. It could simply be a bad habit, but it could also have its roots in some deeper issue.

For example, an anxious dog may lick as a way to comfort itself. If so, the best way to stop the licking is to figure out how to calm the dog down through other means.