By Dawn Gardner, Dog Trainer
There is nothing in the world that compares with the joy our dogs can bring to us when they run to greet us after a long day. The expression of pure bliss they have at the sight of us lets us know just how much they love us. One common occurrence during these greetings is the puppy “kiss”.
Often they will give us big sloppy licks as they celebrate. So why do they do it? Why do dogs lick your face? Why do they lick at all? Don’t worry your dog is not tasting you to see if you might be dinner. He is acting on a natural behavior that is deeply rooted in who he is as a dog.
Licking serves several purposes in the dog world. Information gathering is one of them. Smell is the strongest of your dog’s senses. Humans tend to use sight, and generally have very good vision. Dogs do not. Not only are they missing the cones in their eyes to see light in the red and green spectrum, but the clarity of their vision is nothing like ours.
While our visual cortex is fairly large, the dog dedicates a large part of his brain to scent. And the dog does not just smell with his nose. He also smells with his mouth. This is the reason your dog may flick his tongue out of his mouth and run it over his nose. He is licking the scent molecules off of his nose to learn more about his environment.
Dogs possess what is called the Jacobson’s Organ which is between the sinuses and the roof of the dog’s mouth. This organ interprets scent molecules that the nose cannot discern. These molecules are generally large, and to humans, have no scent at all.
But the Jacobson’s Organ gives the dog information about his environment that would otherwise be lost. By licking these molecules off of the folds of the nose and pulling them into his mouth, the dog can gain a great deal of information about the world around him. The Jacobson’s Organ is vital in the detection of pheromones in the environment. It can help dogs of breeding age to find a mate, and it can help a newborn pup to find his mother.
Licking others is a deep seated behavior in the dog world. Mother dogs lick their newborn puppies to stimulate them to begin breathing on their own. Without it, they would not survive. The licking starts the moment the puppies come out of the womb. Later, they lick their young to stimulate elimination and to clean them. Some mothers may lick puppies excessively if there is a problem. It is the way that a mother dog cares for her young.
In early canine behavior, licking of the face had a very specific cause. By licking the mother dog, the puppy was trying to stimulate her to regurgitate some of the food she has eaten. It would not be a good idea for a mother dog to carry a large piece of meat back to her den, so she would swallow the food, and when her pups licked her mouth, she would regurgitate the partially digested food up to feed her pups.
It is extremely common for puppies and dogs that want to present themselves as non-threatening to lick other dogs on or near their mouths. It’s their way of saying “I’m friendly, and don’t want any trouble.”
So, as much as we may feel like parents, our dogs aren’t stupid. They know we are not dogs. They are not trying to get us to give them something to eat. So why do dogs lick your face?
Appeasement is the most likely reason for a dog to lick a human in the face. When a dog licks another dog in the face, he is trying to communicate that he is no threat, like a little puppy.
What our dog does naturally we often inadvertently train them to continue to do. If we ignore our dog when she is licking us, she may stop and opt for a behavior that gets her the attention and affection she wants. But if we give attention our dogs will be rewarded for the behavior, and more likely to repeat it later.
Laughter can also encourage a behavior. Studies have shown that human laughter is reinforcing to dogs. If your puppy licks you and you laugh, you have just told her that you like what she did. She will be much more likely to repeat the behavior.
For dogs, licking causes the release of endorphins, which make the dog feel better. Some dogs develop a habit of licking that can be distressing to us. Stereotypies can develop when a dog is stressed, and finds a behavior that soothes them when repeated. This is much like a child who sucks his thumb.
I have two dachshunds that clearly cannot hold their “lickers.” When these boys get nervous or bored, they resort to licking anything and everything around them. They lick the rug, they lick the bed sheets, they lick each other.
Some dogs will lick themselves until they have sores. Lick granuloma can be an unsightly and painful condition in dogs that lick. It is common for dogs with allergies and dogs with anxiety disorders.
Just because your dog licks you in appeasement, doesn’t mean that the gesture is not one of affection. Studies have shown that our dogs cause us to release dopamine when we look at them, just like we do when we look at our own young. In a sense, our dogs have hijacked our dopamine response system resulting in our continuation to take care of them.
But the reverse is also true. A dog’s brain also releases dopamine when he looks at his human. You don’t have to wonder if your dog loves you because science has proven it. So call it a kiss if you like. Your dog certainly loves you, and this may be his way of expressing it!
But what if you don’t like it when your dog licks you in the face? Try teaching him another behavior to get your attention and your affection. Perhaps a high five, or a simple sit. If you teach your dog what you like, and start ignoring the licking or even walking away when he does it, your dog will opt to use his energy in a way that works. Instead of licking, you’ll get a high five. But please don’t punish your dog for showing his appreciation of you, just show him how to do it better!
Dawn Gardner is the owner of Happy Hound Pet Services, a private dog training company located in Rudy, Arkansas. She has been training dogs in obedience for over fifteen years. She also works with dogs with behavioral challenges including anxiety and aggression, and has worked with several breed rescue groups to rehabilitate dogs with behavioral problems. Dawn is certified through the CCPDT, the only nationally recognized and accredited certifying agency for professional dog trainers.