Our dogs are excited to see us when we come home, and some of them express that excitement through (really slobbery) face licking.
Humans’ reactions to this behavior run the gamut from absolutely thrilled to totally grossed out — and everything in between. It seems that our dogs deliberately go for our faces rather than being content with a hand or an arm.
It makes you wonder: Why do dogs lick our faces?
1. Licking From Birth
Licking is a habit that is learned almost right at birth. The mother will lick her puppies to clean them, show affection and stimulate their elimination systems.
Puppies learn from their mother, so they will use their tongues to discover the world around them — just like your toddler “learns” about the world around her by putting everything in her mouth.
The book Petspeak: Share Your Pets’ Secret Language explains that there is another reason puppies lick their mother’s face — they want food: “Puppies who lick their mother’s muzzles are politely asking Mom if she’d be kind enough to regurgitate some food for them. Some experts believe that this is why dogs almost seem compelled to lick people’s faces.”
Don’t worry — you aren’t required to do any regurgitating. Dog food will be just fine for your pup.
2. Submission Licking
Dogs will often lick the “top dog” in the pack to show submission.
According to Pedigree, “Adult dogs lick as a sign of deference or submissiveness to a dominant pack member. The dog doing the licking usually lowers its body to make itself smaller, and looks up, adding to the effect of subordinate behavior. The dog receiving the face licks shows its dominance by standing tall to accept the gesture, but doesn’t return the favor.”
Although people and dogs have different habits, chances are you are the top dog in your house. Your dog might be licking your face to acknowledge that.
3. Dogs Enjoy the Taste of Sweat
Although I like to tell everyone, “I don’t sweat — I glow,” the truth is that people sweat (even me). Our sweat is pretty salty, and your dog may be licking you because, to him, you taste awfully good.
Dogs lick themselves and one another to keep clean, so it’s natural that yours would try to clean you — including your ears — as well.
4. Licking as Greeting
It’s no surprise that dogs are happy to see us when we return home. In their world, the pack is back together again.
Petspeak explains that dog licks are therefore the equivalent of handshakes or waves: “When we want to show dogs that we’re attached to them, we use our hands to pet them. The only part of their bodies that dogs can move that much is their tongues, so they lick us.”
Even if you’ve taught your dog to shake hands, he won’t equate that with a greeting. In his eyes, the proper way to greet you is to, well, lick you.
How long would you last? Check out this pup who can’t — or maybe just won’t — curb his licking:
Make It Stop
If you’re not a fan of the licking, there are a few things you can do to discourage the behavior. Be patient — licking is part of a dog’s instinctual makeup, and it will take time to curb the behavior.
If your dog licks a lot, invest some time in training him to be more restrained, especially if he is big. You are prepared to handle his weight and affectionate greetings, but visitors to your home may not be ready for all that heavy licking.
Although for some people face licking isn’t the most desirable greeting, it’s a habit that is deeply ingrained in dogs’ genetic makeup. If you don’t enjoy it, you can positively discourage it. But for some, those doggy kisses are the best part of the day.