You may love your dog, but not all of us like “kisses” from our furry canine friends. Most pet parents believe their dogs lick them to show affection, but why do dogs really lick us? Does it mean something different if your dog licks your face, hands, ears, or feet?
Why Do Dogs Lick People?
Licking is a natural instinct in dogs. Studies have shown that licking releases endorphins in a dog’s brain. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that make dogs (and us!) feel calmer and more relaxed. Dogs lick people for a variety of reasons, including affection, communication, grooming, exploration, attention, and taste.
Learning to Lick as Puppies
Dogs learn very early that their tongues are useful tools in communicating and interacting with the world around them. Mother dogs lick their pups to clean and stimulate them as soon as they are born. For the first few weeks of their lives, puppies are also licked by mother dogs to prompt them to urinate and defecate.
In wild dogs, puppies lick their elders to communicate submissiveness, but also to induce the regurgitation of food that the older pack members ingested while hunting. Pups will lick one another to show affection and also to comfort themselves and their littermates.
Licking People for Taste
Licking also enhances your dog’s sense of smell. Like us, dogs can taste bitter, salty, sweet, and sour, but due to their small number of taste buds, they actually use their sense of smell far more than their sense of taste when deciding what to lick or eat. This is likely why dogs enjoy licking areas of our bodies that tend to have strong tastes and smells: our faces, ears, feet, and hands.
To understand why dogs really enjoy licking certain areas of our bodies, we need to take a quick look at the anatomy of human sweat. People have two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine.
Eccrine glands secrete a thin, odorless, clear fluid made of salt, protein, etc., and are found in large numbers on the soles of the feet, the palms, the forehead and cheeks, and in the armpits.
Apocrine glands secrete a thicker fluid that reacts with the bacteria on your skin to create body odor and are found in the armpits and groin, but also in the ear canals, eyelids, and nostrils.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Hands?
You use your hands to touch everything, and your dog wants in on the action! As you move through the world on any given day, your hands collect smells and flavors that your dog wants to investigate once you come home.
You might touch other people or animals. You very likely touch food. And think of all the other fascinating things you touch when you’re away from your dog! Your hands are like a roadmap for your pup that tells the story of your day, and they want to taste and smell every “destination” your hands visited. The palms of your hands also sweat, leaving a salty residue on your skin for your dog to enjoy.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Face?
Other than your hands, your face is the area of your body that gets the most exposure to the world, so it picks up a lot of interesting smells and tastes. Also, you’re likely to touch your face regularly, giving your dog even more reasons to lick your face!
As mentioned before, your face contains both types of sweat glands. Eccrine glands on your cheeks and forehead leave a salty flavor dogs are certain to enjoy. But your eyelids and nostrils contain apocrine glands, which give those areas a mild but distinct odor easily identified by your dog’s super-powered nose.
Thanks to the food you eat, your lips and mouth contain all sorts of attractive smells and tastes for your dog, which may explain why some pups really want to plant a slobbery kiss right on your lips!
Aside from all the scents and flavors your face offers, licking your face is likely an instinctual behavior for your dog. Dogs lick each other's faces for mutual grooming, affection, and submissive communication, so licking your face is also a true sign of endearment.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Ears?
The apocrine glands in your ear canals secrete a thick fluid that creates an odor when it mixes with the natural bacteria on your skin. Combined with the ceruminous glands, which create earwax, your ears offer a collection of enticing smells and tastes. As if that wasn’t enough, dogs lick each other’s ears to show affection, so your dog may be licking your ears just to show you some extra devotion.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Feet?
All of those eccrine glands on the soles of your feet create lots of sweat, and that sweat creates lots of salt. Your feet and toes offer a salty treat for your pup, and if they are ticklish, it also makes for a fun game between you and your dog.
When you smile and laugh as your dog licks your feet, you’re giving them positive reinforcement. If you continue laughing each time they lick, they quickly learn that licking your feet gains them positive attention from you.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Legs?
If you’re fresh from the shower, your dog may want to lick the water droplets from your skin. They may not be thirsty but interested in all of the smells and tastes you’re bringing out of the shower with you.
Shampoo, body wash, shaving creams, etc., all leave an interesting scent and taste on your skin. If the leg-licking has nothing to do with shower time, it could be a lotion you applied or simply salt on your skin after exercise.
Even though your dog is attracted to all sorts of scents, the reason they lick you likely also has something to do with showing affection to their favorite human.
Featured image: iStock.com/Art_rich