Some dog owners love it; others hate it. It’s a controversial subject, for sure. Is it actually hazardous to allow your dog to lick your face? The jury is out on this one with proponents on either side feeling very strongly about their opinions. When faced with dog behavior that we find unusual, it is always important to consider the roots behind it. Since most dog activities find their basis in logic, there may be a connection to the licking conundrum that we are missing.
Anthropomorphism, the act of attributing human qualities and feelings to actions by our dogs, is a very common phenomenon. We often misinterpret our dog’s actions because we are viewing them through the lens of of our own species and personal motivations for engaging in similar behavior. However, since dog and human logic are often far removed from one another, it is important to ponder what Fido is trying to accomplish with all of his facial licking.
Why do dogs lick?
Licking is a behavior that is instinctual for our dogs. It serves many different purposes for them and even is a means of communicating feelings and desired responses.
Here are some of the messages your dog might be trying to send you:
- “I love you!”
Without question, most dog owners view facial licking as an expression of affection. And it is quite possible that it is true, particularly if we seem to enjoy their licking efforts.
Dogs tend to repeat behavior that brings them their desired response. Often, we unknowingly reinforce a behavior by praising it. If Fido jumps up and starts licking your face, and you show obvious signs of delight, chances are very good that he is going to repeat the behavior at a future date.
Making you happy makes your dog happy. If you express pleasure when he licks your face, he will sense it and offer the behavior again simply because he likes bringing you joy.
You are the most important thing in your dog’s world. Nothing is more important to him than time spent with you. Because of this, dogs will often lick you as a means to gain your undivided attention. For Fido, a distracted pat on his head while you watch TV sometimes just isn’t good enough! But it’s pretty hard to ignore a dog that is insistent on lavishing your face with kisses! It is but one way to get you to notice him and is a powerful example of a dog behavior eliciting the desired response from his favorite person!
- “I respect you.”
In the wild, dogs would often “groom” the faces of the lead dog in their pack. This licking carried great significance. In essence, it was an action designed to confirm for the pack leader that the dog submitted to his leadership.
In the dog world, he who controls the resources, controls the game. As such, your dog respects your position as leader of your home. His licking may be his way of communicating to you that he knows and accepts that you are “top dog”.
- “I’m hungry!”
Since dogs have fewer means of communicating their needs than their human counterparts, they have become masters at using body language to express their desires.
Puppies are entirely dependent upon their mothers for the first few weeks of their lives. Their digestive systems are not yet fully formed during this formative time, and it is necessary for their mothers to first provide milk for their sustenance then later assist them with transitioning to more solid foods. One way mother dogs in the wild would assist with this, is through breaking down solid foods by chewing them, then swallowing them to later regurgitate for her babies to ingest. The act of licking his mother’s mouth was a trigger designed to indicate to her that the puppy is hungry and ready to eat.
Thankfully, today, with human beings able to intervene to help transition a puppy from mother’s milk to solid food, mother dogs don’t have to do this any more, though some still do. Still, the instinct remains alive and well in our modern dogs. It is possible that there are times when your dog is licking your face to let you know that he’d really enjoy a little snack!
- “You need a bath.”
Dogs generally are cleaner animals than most people give them credit for. Though not necessarily as fastidious as cats, dogs do still like them and their surroundings to remain sanitary. If you have just finished running on the treadmill or come in from taking out the garbage, and you’re a little “riper” than your dog would like, he just might take it upon himself to freshen you up until you can take a shower.
- “You taste delicious!”
On the other end of the spectrum is the fact that sometimes we humans taste delicious to our dogs. No need to fear, Fido isn’t going to go all Cujo on you! Dogs are naturally drawn to salt, and our skin often bears that briny tang that they love to lick.
- “This makes me happy.”
The act of licking is a form of stress release for your dog. In general, dogs will lick to self-soothe. The action itself has a very calming effect on them. Consider it the canine equivalent of a hot bath, a cup of tea, and a good book.
Is it hazardous to allow your dog to lick you?
It is easy to see that licking is an activity that is beneficial for our dogs. But is it potentially harmful for us as their owners?
Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, a leading United States professor of medicine, has stated that dogs’ mouths are, “host to an enormous oral microbiome of bacteria, viruses, and yeast.” YUCK! That would sound like a resounding NO. But there is more to consider than this important fact.
Many people believe that dogs’ saliva contains healing properties. It certainly seems to be true that dogs are drawn to licking open wounds, and their focused licking attention provides healing benefits.
The truth is that most animal illnesses that would be transmitted through saliva are not harmful for humans though there are some that we could contract in this fashion. However, our dogs most commonly choose to lick our skin as opposed to areas of our body that are more prone to absorb and transmit deadly bacteria such as the eyes, nasal membranes, or the mouth.
Dog “kisses” resulting in human illness is unlikely but still possible. If you enjoy this form of “affection” with your dogs, it is not necessary to eliminate it. However, care should be taken to discourage your dog from licking areas of the body that could unintentionally transmit harmful bacteria from their mouths to your body.
Always bear in mind that your dog’s nose and mouth sometimes gets into things you’d rather not have contact with such as feces or the carcasses of other dead animals. As a result, you may choose to restrict licking to areas of the body like legs and feet instead of your face.
Love getting kisses from Fido every day? No need to stop something you enjoy so much. Just redirect Fido’s affection away from sensitive areas like your lips, nose, and eyes for the utmost in safety precautions.