Why does my dog lick me?

Author picture Katy  - updated: 06/08/2019

Some people find a friendly lick from your dog to be funny and sweet, others find it a bit yucky. But why does a dog actually lick you? And what are the implications for your health when a dog licks?

Why does a dog lick?

Dogs lick for all sorts of reasons. When your dog slowly licks their own muzzle or body, this is a nurturing action similar to when a mother dog licks her pups. But it could also indicate a problem: licking around the mouth might indicate a health or stress issue. In turn, when a dog licks you it could also mean that your dog is seeking affection, or your attention, such as if their water bowl needs refilling. Does your dog happily lick your face, hands and feet when you get home? Then they are probably saying: "I'm so happy you're here, love me and give me all of your attention!" However, sometimes a dog also licks you just because you taste nice to them. Especially after a sweaty work-out :-)

A dog that licks another dog around the mouth is probably showing humility and respect. When this happens, you might see other calming signals such as a low, wagging tail. This type of lickings means: 'be kind to me, I mean you no harm!'

Dogs sometimes also lick their own lips. Often this is accompanied by other calming signals such as yawning. This means: 'I'm feeling some stress coming up and I want to ask you to leave me in peace'. It is important to recognize and understand these kinds of conflict-avoiding signals from your dog - especially as a dog sitter, it is an important skill to 'read' dogs that you don't know very well yet. Read more about calming signals here.

A dog that licks its own lips often feels uncomfortable

Licking and grooming

Dogs usually also lick themselves as a method of grooming and self-care. They do this to keep clean, for example around their paws, abdomen and genitalia. If your dog licks excessively at a single spot, then something might be wrong. The dog may be in pain due to a wound (such as a splinter, burn or scrape), or even joint pain due to a sprain or arthritis. In addition, excessive licking can indicate itching due to allergies or fleas or ticks. Dogs don't like to display their discomfort and will hide their pain for as long as possible. So don't let your pooch walk around in potential pain and discomfort - if in doubt, always consult a veterinarian. 

Finally, compulsive licking can sometimes be a sign of stress or boredom. In that case, have a look at the situation your dog is living in. Perhaps something has changed in your household that might be causing tension? Or maybe your dog isn't mentally or physically challenged enough. In that case, your dog might benefit from a personal dog walking service, or a dog sitter. In order to keep your dog happy and healthy, always keep a close eye on their behaviour. You will discover that your dog actually communicates a lot of important information through body-language about their state of mind and their physical health.

Is a dog's lick bad for you?

Whether or not you don't mind a sloppy dog kiss: is it good or harmful to get a lick from your dog? The fact is, it's a myth that a dog tongue is clean or even healing. A dog tongue does indeed contain bacteria (about 400 species of bacteria on average), and they might include very nasty pathogens. So NEVER let a dog lick your wound and do not give your dog kisses on the mouth - especially if you are a dog sitter and surrounded by different doggos all the time. Older people, young children and people with a lower resistance should be extra careful with dog licks.

But don't be too fearful: we are always surrounded by bacteria (your dishcloth in the kitchen usually contain much more bacteria than a dog's tongue!). The best thing to do is exercise caution and don't make it a habit, and make sure your dog sitter knows to uphold this too. Would you prefer your dog to not lick your face? Don't punish them, but just say 'no' and let your dog sniff or lick your hand instead. Of course, your dog means well and in dog-language means a greeting lick: I like you!