Ever been woken up by your dog licking your face? It happens to me just about every morning. Ever wonder what’s up with that? Why do dogs lick faces anyway?
Dogs lick us for a number of reasons, the main one usually being that they are looking for attention from their owner. When my dog licks me each morning, I know she wants something. It’s a form of communication. She’s saying, “Hey! I’m here! It’s time for our morning routine.”
Many people realize that licking is a form of communication for dogs, but you may not know that this instinctual behavior serves some practical purposes as well. A mother dog licks her puppies to remove the birthing membrane and to stimulate them to nurse. She also licks their backsides to stimulate elimination. Later as they grow older, she will lick them to check them over, and in the process give a little cleaning up. When a mother dog licks her pups, it looks like motherly love, and it might actually be, but it has practical benefits as well.
When puppies get older, especially in the wild, they will lick the lips of other dogs to try to get them to regurgitate food for them. While that’s not necessary in domesticated animals, they still perform the same action just by instinct. Licking a mother figure around the face seems to follow even domesticated animals as they grow, which could be part of why they lick you, their owner, the central figure in their life.
Sometimes a dog will lick things like feet, hands, even woodwork out of nervousness or a compulsion. If your dog has a fixation or seems unable to control his licking, then you might need to see a vet to investigate and address the cause of the problem.
A modest amount of licking over a short period of time is likely just self comforting — the same kind of thing as when when you stick your own thumb in your mouth after hitting it with a hammer. But keep an eye on a dog that is constantly licking his paws. Frequent licking of pawpads is often a sign of allergies, or may be due to an injury or other irritation such as an impacted foxtail. These types of things need to be checked out by a vet.
Licking Can Warn of Biting
Always take into consideration what else is happening when your dog starts licking. If you are in a situation that is stressing your dog — if you are applying medication, treating an injury, or subjecting them to something uncomfortable, scary, or that they simply don’t like — your dog’s licks may be their way of telling you that they are at the end of their rope. If the activity that is upsetting the dog continues, a dog that is licking may very well bite. Hopefully you will recognize that the licking behavior is their last, desperate, polite way of telling you that they are unhappy, and asking you to stop. Be aware that not all dogs growl before biting! Licking may be the only warning you get.
Licking for Attention
But by far the most common reason that a dog licks is because he is craving attention. You may get licked enthusiastically when you wake up in the morning, or return home each day. You may also notice that your dog will lick your hands or face when you are watching TV, trying to work, or otherwise occupied. This is because they want your attention on them, not on other things. If you laugh when your dog licks you, it encourages the behavior, because you are rewarding her with a warm, happy sound that gives positive reinforcement. If her licks get you to pat her, feed her, or do other good things, you can expect her to repeat the licking behavior in the future.
If your dog is the pushy type, you will want to teach some manners to control the licking behavior. Teach her a hand signal that means “go away” or “no more” and stick to your guns. Once you say, “that’s enough” and give the signal, don’t pat or otherwise reward your pet until they stop the licking and pushy behavior. After all, insistent, joyful licks may be cute as a small puppy, but if that dog will grow up to weigh 80 pounds, you’d better establish your boundaries early!