Why Do Dogs Lick You? 4 Reasons a Dog May Lick You

Updated: May 31, 2024

Are dog licks really canine kisses? Here's what to know about why dogs lick.

Dog parents love their pets—and want them to love them back in equal measure, as evidenced by the billions of dollars pet owners spend each year on treats, toys and more for their four-legged friends. Given this desire for affection, it’s natural that some pet parents might interpret a dog licking their face or hands as kisses or as expressions of love. But is that what they are, really?

As a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, my favorite part of what I do is educating pet parents on dog behavior and answering the multitude of questions that start with “Why does my dog … ?” One of the most common questions I’m asked is “Why does my dog lick me?”

A simple scientific answer would be that human skin is salty and dogs like the salty taste of our skin. The anthropomorphic response would be “He is telling you he likes you.” Which one is correct? Is your dog just treating you like a salt lick or do dog licks mean kisses? Read on to find out.

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About the experts

  • Wailani Sung, DVM, is a vet with a board certification in veterinary behavioral medicine who works at the Behavior Specialty Clinic part of the San Francisco SPCA. Dr. Sung is the co-author of From Fearful to Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears and Phobias.

Why do dogs lick you?

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In general, licking is your dog’s way of communicating and learning more about the world. The reason (or reasons) a dog licks you depends on the animal, the situation and the person being licked.

They want a taste

Dogs receive sensory information regarding the item they lick. For example, dogs lick food to get a taste to decide if they do—or don’t—want to bite into said item. When it comes to people, some dogs may like the taste of the salt and may be more likely to lick people when they are crying or sweating. Some dogs may also lick you when your skin is wet, such as when you just stepped out of the shower.

A dog might lick your face or hands after you eat to clean up anything you did not wipe off with your napkin. (If you have toddlers, your dog may need to work extra hard.) Here, dogs are doing double duty in cleaning up the person or child and also getting a taste of human food.

They want a better sniff

The moisture from dog saliva can reactivate some volatile compounds left in dried residues, such as dried saliva or urine. Dogs may lick a person’s hands if they smell food residue on them. After a dog licks the residue, leftover volatile compounds are released into the air again and may provide the dog with additional smells.

They are saying hi

Some dogs might lick as part of their greeting behavior when they are comfortable and happy to see a person. Instead of staring at their owner to get attention, some have learned to use licking as a way to get the person’s attention. Most people find it difficult to ignore a dog that licks them, whether the lick is wanted or not, and will have some type of reaction, be it positive (looking at, speaking to or petting the dog) or negative (moving away).

They’re showing their submissive side

A puppy or other subordinate dog might lick a more confident or assertive adult dog as a way to appease it. This instinct may transfer over to a person they’re uncertain about too. Here, they’re demonstrating “I don’t know where I stand with you or whether you like me or not, so I’m going to lick you to show you that I am not a threat so you don’t get upset with me.”

Should you let your dog lick you?

Most dogs will lick you on your hands or arms, your legs if you’re wearing a skirt or shorts, or your face if they can reach it. In most circumstances, it’s fine for a dog to lick a person, as long as the person is OK with it.

When is it not OK for a dog to lick you?

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When a person is allergic to dog saliva, immunocompromised or simply does not like being licked, a dog should not lick them. People who are allergic to dog saliva should immediately wash the licked area or wipe it down with a skin-safe disinfectant wipe. Dogs should not be allowed to lick a person’s open wounds, especially if they are immunocompromised, as numerous bacteria, such as clostridia, enterococcus and streptococcus, can live in a dog’s mouth.

When is licking a problem?

Licking is normal dog behavior, and some dogs lick more than others. Licking becomes problematic when:

  • A dog won’t stop licking you and you don’t want them to. Some people may be grossed out by dog saliva, and others just prefer not to feel a moist dog tongue on their skin.
  • The dog continually licks you in one spot on your body. Repeated dog licks on the same area can be a bigger issue, as it has the potential to irritate your skin. The dampness and bacteria present in your dog’s saliva and on your skin can form a perfect condition for a skin infection to occur.
  • A dog repeatedly licks the air or an inanimate, inedible object. This may be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as dental disease or gastrointestinal discomfort.
  • A dog licks one area of its own body repeatedly. This may be an indication that that area is itchy or painful.

Dogs that lick the air, inanimate objects or one area of their body repeatedly should be examined by a veterinarian.

How do you teach your dog to stop licking you?

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Even though licking is a normal dog behavior, if you do not like it, you can teach your dog to stop licking.

1. Redirect the behavior

The best strategy is to teach and reinforce alternate behaviors. Here’s how that works: If your dog always licks you when he approaches you, ask your dog to sit before he has a chance to lick you, then reward that behavior with a treat, a toy or praise.

2. Ignore the behavior

Another option is, the next time your dog starts licking you, simply get up and walk away, go into another room and shut the door so your dog cannot follow. Your pup will gradually learn that licking makes you go away and, if they don’t want you to leave, then they need to stop licking you. Keep in mind that you need to be consistent with your training, because it takes some time for even the smartest dog to learn the association that licking causes people to ignore him and potentially walk away.

The bottom line of dog licking

I don’t know of any research that definitively states that when dogs lick people it releases endorphins, the feel-good hormone, for the dog. However, if a dog finds licking people to be a rewarding behavior, then endorphins can be released. I think that licking causes people to pay attention to their dogs, and the positive interaction between the person and the dog is rewarding and also may release endorphins for both the human and the dog. While I do not enjoy being licked on the face by my dog, I do see it as a sign of affection.

Why trust us

At Reader’s Digest, we’re committed to producing high-quality content by writers with expertise and experience in their field in consultation with relevant, qualified experts. For this piece, Wailani Sung, DVM, a vet with a board certification in veterinary behavioral medicine, tapped her experience as a certified professional dog trainer and then Amy Attas, VMD, an award-winning veterinarian and the author of Pets and the City: True Tales of a Manhattan House Call Veterinarian, gave it a rigorous review to ensure that all information is accurate and offers the best possible advice to readers. We verify all facts and data, back them with credible sourcing and revisit them over time to ensure they remain accurate and up to date. Read more about our team, our contributors and our editorial policies.


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