The True Scoop on Why Your Dog Licks Faces

There is absolutely nothing better than sweet puppy breath and kisses, and those of you living with a puppy or two know exactly what I’m talking about. It is so sweet and wonderful, and it must mean love, right?

Not exactly.

Puppies typically lick faces far more frequently than adult dogs do, and it stems from the instinct to lick at their mother’s face. In wild canines such as wolves, the mother wolf—as well as other adult wolves—will regurgitate food for their young with just this simple lick. In modern day mother dogs, regurgitation is a much rarer occurrence, but the puppy’s desire to lick at her face remains.

The licking instinct is also more pronounced in puppies and juvenile dogs because it is used as a greeting and an act of submission. Licking at an adult dog’s face signifies that the young dog is not a threat. While it may start as a way to gain food from an adult dog (at least in retained form if not actual purpose), it remains as an appeasement signal as the puppy ages.

This explains why the new puppy you just brought home is often a licker. The puppy doesn’t know you from the next guy down the road, and the licking is a sign of excitement, happiness—sure—but it’s also an appeasement signal to you.

Licking can be taken to new heights in a soft-natured, submissive dog. These dogs will almost obsessively lick faces as well as other body parts. We often think we should tell the dog to stop or yell no, but since it is motivated by submission, we can often make the problem worse by being the aggressor, triggering the dog’s desire to lick even more!

Dogs do lick for other reasons than the need to appease. You may just have something on your skin that tastes good. Have you ever rubbed lotion into your hands or legs and almost instantaneously the dog is there licking it right off? Dogs also enjoy licking off sweat and tears due to the taste of salt.

Licking can also be an intimate form of grooming. It’s not unusual to see dogs that are close with one another groom each other. They may lick at each other’s faces and ears to groom each other. This is a bonding time, and you’ll only see this between dogs that get along well with one another. Dogs that lick us in a similar fashion may be attempting a similar bonding time through grooming.

Lastly, licking and sniffing at humans can be a way of learning about someone, especially someone new. Dogs use their senses to process information about us such as who we are and where we came from, etc. Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, far superior to what we can even imagine as humans. They are equipped with a unique organ, known as the Jacobson's organ, on the roof of their mouths. When they breathe in air, it flows across this organ, cluing them in to substances that have no known detectable odor. Many dogs will also lick at something to gain more scent information. This is a perfectly normal part of being a dog.

It’s important to know that dogs lick for more than one reason. Most people assume it’s purely out of affection, or that it means the dog wants attention. This is not always the case. For example, a dog that is not comfortable with new people may lick a visitor’s hand or pop up into his face solely to learn more about the person. The person may interpret this as the dog seeking attention, and the dog may react poorly to attention he didn’t even to ask for!

If your dog enjoys licking your face, only you can decide how much is too much. If you want the dog to stop licking, simply don’t engage him when he does lick, or ask the dog to do something else, like lie down. Don’t punish him or get upset with him, or he may lick more than before. It is also possible for an anxious dog to compulsively begin to lick, so the calmer you remain, the better.

If your dog licks new people, be sure he really wants to be pet before allowing someone to do so. He will ask for petting from the new person much like he does you. He may or may not be licking for attention.

Whether he’s licking out of habit, for the taste, or to see where you’ve been for the last few hours when you left him home alone, soak it up. Puppy kisses are one of life’s greatest joys.