Thanks to the many thousands of years humans have spent living together with dogs, we find that we can communicate with our canine companions very well. However, sometimes our dogs may act in ways that we might not understand. Most dog owners will have had their hands or face licked by their dog – but why do they do this? James Wellbeloved offers a few reasons why this may happen:
As dogs’ ancestors lived and hunted in packs, they have developed a wide variety of ways to communicate with each other – one of these ways is by licking another dog’s ears, mouth or general facial area. One of the first behaviours dogs learn from their mother is licking, and this behaviour continues in dogs throughout their lives. Mother dogs lick their puppies for a variety of reasons, including to clean them, to encourage them to go to the toilet, and also to comfort them. Puppies therefore learn to groom themselves and their siblings by licking, and also to lick their mum’s face when they are hungry. In the wild, mother dogs would have eaten their prey to make it easier to carry, then later regurgitated it for their pups. For dogs, licking is a powerful way to communicate – to say hello, increase bonds, or show submission to more dominant pack members. As dogs have learnt to live alongside humans, they now use those same methods of communication with us. For example, dogs often get very excited when you return home and may not be able to contain their excitement – one of the reasons that your dog happily licks your face and hands may be that they are showing you how happy they are to be with you!
Dogs don’t have hands and, as such, their mouths are the next best thing they can use to learn about the world. Dogs don’t have the best sense of taste – humans have approximately 9,000 taste buds, whereas dogs have closer to 1,700. Despite this, dogs have five types of taste receptors on their tongue, including salty and acidic. As we know, a dog’s senses are quite different to ours as humans with their sense of smell being 1,000-10,000,000 times better than ours. Dog’s paws aren’t capable of examining things in the way we use our hands, so one way dogs use their tongues is to lick to get a feel of what something is. So, when a new person comes to your house and your dog licks them, they are just trying to find out who they are. Humans have sweat glands over almost our entire bodies and the main components of sweat are salty and acidic elements. This may explain why your dog may lick you more after you’ve exercised! They are also likely to lick your hands and face after you’ve been touching or eating food. You may taste good, but the behaviour of licking itself can also release pleasurable endorphins in your dog’s brain.
Some dogs may have learnt that if they lick you, they get a response – be it positive attention or a sound of disgust. This behaviour may be a nice, gentle way for your dog to communicate with you, as licking usually makes us react in a good way such as stroking them or playing with them. However, some people don’t like being licked at all by their dog. Combatting this behaviour in a positive manner is tricky, but it can be done. In this situation, simply ignoring your dog won’t work as the action of licking is a reward in itself for your dog. To encourage your dog to stop licking we would suggest removing yourself from the situation – don’t tell them off, as this is giving them the attention they were looking for, and any attention can be rewarding for a dog. The best thing to do is to just get up and leave silently, or move your body part so that they can no longer lick it. However, it is believed that when dogs lick, it reduces the level of stress hormones in the body, as when they were young their mothers would lick them to care for or calm them. So, when you dog licks you, they might be trying to make you feel better as well!