Reviewed and updated for accuracy on January 8, 2020 by Dr. Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB
Humans exhibit plenty of nervous behaviors when we’re anxious or stressed.
We bite our nails. We drum our fingers. We tap our toes. We whistle and hum.
Dogs aren't equipped to do most of these things, so sometimes they lick—a lot.
What and when a dog licks can tell you why they lick or what they’re feeling when they lick. It can mean your dog is hungry, happy, sad, sick, or even nervous.
Here are some reasons why dogs lick people, themselves and certain objects.
Why Do Dogs Lick People?
Dr. Megan Maxwell, a certified-applied animal behaviorist, says to pay attention to timing when a dog licks you or someone in your household. The situation at hand can be very informative.
“Sometimes, it’s nothing more than sensory stimulation. If a dog licks you right when you come out of the shower, it’s because you’re wet or because the lotion you just put on smells good,” says Dr. Maxwell.
Licking can also be affectionate in nature. This starts when dogs are puppies.
Mother dogs lick their young during the first couple of weeks of infancy in order to stimulate them to urinate and defecate, says Dr. Maxwell. So there’s something innate that tells dogs that licking is an act of love and caregiving.
Puppies will lick their owners as much as they allow them to, and this will carry forward for most of their lives. If you don’t like your dog licking you, you have to walk away to stop the behavior early on, says Dr. Maxwell.
All it might take is leaving the room for a few minutes when your dog starts licking you for them to realize this behavior drives you away.
That said, Dr. Maxwell says it isn’t detrimental for your dog to lick you if you’re fine with being covered in slobber. It might make you feel closer to your dog and help them feel closer to you.
However, there have been some cases of dogs transmitting infections via licking, so if you have open wounds or your immune system is compromised, it’s probably best to discourage licking.
Why Do Dogs Lick Faces?
Dr. Maxwell suggests that the notion of a dog “kissing” you is sometimes inaccurate. Dogs who lick faces aren’t always being affectionate. “If it’s your face being licked, it could be related to something you just ate.”
Dogs will typically lick each other’s faces as a sign of deference or affection. Sometimes, they will lick because they smell leftover food particles in the other dog’s mouth.
While this is considered a pretty normal dog interaction, make sure to keep an eye on them to ensure that neither dog is getting upset about the interaction.
Why Do Dogs Lick Our Feet?
Dogs can lick feet as a way to get attention. If you always look at or talk to your dog when he licks your feet, you are reinforcing this particular behavior.
Some dogs may be more attracted to feet because they smell. When our feet are encased in leather, plastic, or cloth, they get warm and sweaty. Dogs may be attracted to the odor since it smells different from the rest of the body.
Dogs may want to lick the salt left behind from sweat on the feet as well.
Many people don’t like it when their dog tries to lick their face or hands but are more tolerant of dogs licking their feet. Your dog may learn that for you, the socially acceptable place to lick is your feet.
Why Do Dogs Lick Their Paws?
Cheri Wulff Lucas, a dog behavior specialist and rescuer, suggests that the most common reason for dogs to lick their paws is because something is on or in them.
“Maybe it’s just water they’re licking off or—I live in California, so my dogs sometimes get foxtail stuck in their paws,” says Lucas.
Check to see if there is something stuck in your dog’s paws if you see him licking them. If not, there’s a good chance he’s dealing with a medical issue.
“The second most common reason why dogs lick their paws is allergies,” Lucas says. Yeast infections—which are primarily caused by an allergy—tend to begin either in a dog’s ears or in their paws.
If you notice this type of licking in addition to other symptoms like sores, redness, or a slimy, often smelly discharge, have your dog checked out by the vet right away.
If it’s bad enough, Lucas says, dogs might lick their paws until they draw blood, so don’t wait to call your vet.
Why Do Dogs Lick the Carpet and the Couch?
If you see your dog licking the carpet or the couch, this is where the behavior tends toward the stereotypical (or behaviorally problematic), according to Dr. Maxwell. “Unless you just dropped food, there’s no normal reason why a dog should regularly lick the carpet or furniture.”
If it’s anxiety-driven, Dr. Maxwell says, you ought to notice certain trends or other triggers. For instance, if your dog starts licking something whenever the doorbell rings, that’s likely a fear- or anxiety-based behavior.
In an instance like this, you might be able to make him feel more comfortable by putting him in his bed with his favorite soft toy.
But, Dr. Maxwell says, if you notice your dog panting or furrowing their eyes as they obsessively lick the same spot in the carpet or on the couch, it’s time to have them checked out.
A study has also linked excessive dog licking with medical, especially gastrointestinal, disorders, so a routine veterinary exam is the best place to start.
Assuming everything checks out, you can begin to tackle the problem from a behavioral perspective.
What Else Do Dogs Lick? And When Should You Worry About Licking?
Lucas says that if your dog is licking something other than what’s listed here, it’s likely a sensory response or indicative of a problem. “You’ll occasionally see a dog licking a window or a tile floor,” she says. “That’s probably because something was spilled there or because it’s cool or they like the texture.”
Again, if it’s something your dog does with regularity and the behavior seems abnormal (e.g., they lick the same spot over and over again), consult a professional to discuss treatment options.
By: John Gilpatrick