Have a dog who just won’t stop licking you? Dogs use licking as a way to communicate with us and the world around them — whether that’s to tell us they need something, they love us, or they want us to feel better.
As long as the licking isn’t obsessive and non-stop (which could indicate your dog is in pain or not feeling well), licking is a way for your dog to communicate and totally normal.
So what’s the meaning behind all those kisses? Here’s what our dogs are trying to tell us when they lick us.
They’re Showing Affection
One reason dogs may lick their owners is simply out of affection. Dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, and through that time, they have developed strong bonds with us. Licking is a way for them to show their love and affection, much like humans may hug or kiss someone they care about. Additionally, dogs may lick their humans as a way to reinforce social bonds, as licking can be a sign of submission and trust.
“Dogs often use this behavior to communicate with humans,” says Dr. Alex Schechter, founder and veterinarian at Burrwood Veterinary. “Licking can be a sign of love, and it often happens when dogs are happy or excited.” This is why you might get a lot of kisses when you return home.
Related: 6 Weird Dog Behaviors and What They Mean, According to Experts
They’re Grooming You
Another reason why dogs lick humans is to groom them. “Dogs are natural groomers who lick themselves and other dogs to keep their fur clean and healthy,” explains Dr. Schechter. “When dogs lick humans, it can be a way to remove dirt and debris from their skin or hair as well as a sign of care and attention.”
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Grooming is also a way to connect socially, according to Dr. Patrik Holmboe, head veterinarian for veterinary telemedicine provider Cooper Pet Care. “It shows attention and affection for both the licker and the ‘lickee’,” Holmboe explains.
They Want Your Attention
Another reason dogs may lick their owners is because they are seeking attention or trying to communicate something. For example, they may lick to signal that they want food or water or need to go out.
This doesn’t always take the form of loving kisses on your face, though. According to Dr. Holmboe, this could be done by “either licking their lips or licking the hands of their owners.”
In these situations, licking is an attention-seeking behavior. “If an owner gives a reward for licking, usually attention, then it’s very likely that the behavior will continue,” Dr. Holmboe explains.
They’re Showing Empathy
Feeling sad? Your dog can probably tell and might be licking you to make you feel better. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that many dogs are very sensitive to their owner’s distress and will try to “rescue” their human.
They Think You Taste Good
Dogs have a highly sensitive sense of smell and taste, and they may have a different idea of what tastes good then we do. So, if you’re coming home from the gym and your dog rewards you with lots of licking, he might just be enjoying the taste of salt on your skin.
“Dogs also sometimes lick us because they can tell we’ve been cooking; we might have crumbs or bits of food residue on our hands,” Dr. Holmboe adds. You might not be able to smell food on your hands or around your mouth, but that doesn’t mean your dog can’t.
They Feel Anxious
Licking can be a soothing behavior for dogs, says Dr. Holmboe. “They may lick their owners as a way of calming themselves, or as a way to seek comfort when they are feeling anxious.”
Dogs prone to anxiety tend to be lickers, and so do dogs who need to way to soothe themselves during stressful situations — anything from being left alone to their owners yelling or fighting.
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Research shows that licking causes a release of dopamine and endorphins in a dog’s brain, helping them feel better and relax. In fact, a recent human study shows that the positive effects of interacting with your dog go both ways and “both partners exhibit a surge in oxytocin, a hormone which has been linked to positive emotional states.”
Related: Should You Let Your Dog Sleep in Bed With You?
Licking is one way our dogs communicate with us. While some dogs may lick their humans more than others, it is generally a harmless behavior and can even be seen as a sign of affection. However, if your dog’s licking becomes excessive or starts to cause problems, such as skin irritation or anxiety, consult with a veterinarian or a professional dog trainer.