Love it or hate it, dogs love to lick. They lick themselves, they lick the ground, and at some point, they lick our hands. Like many common canine behaviors, licking has many possible causes and no definite answers.
- Affection: Dogs might lick your hand to show affection. Once they get started, the act of licking triggers the release of endorphins, incentivizing them to keep licking. Frantically wagging tails and rapid licking can indicate high levels of arousal.
- Taste: Dogs don’t have a sense of “good” or “bad” flavors and are drawn to explore novel ones. They love sampling the flavors we carry around on our hands.
- Compulsion: Boredom or anxiety can lead to the development of compulsive behaviors. Dogs who lick compulsively tend not to discriminate in target and are difficult to stop, frequently resuming the behavior as soon as they’re interrupted.
Is it hygienic to let my dog lick my hands?
You may have heard the old wives’ tale that a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s. Some people even say that a dog’s saliva has healing properties.
Dog saliva has antibacterial properties, but so does human saliva. And we definitely don’t encourage each other to lick our wounds!
Billions of bacteria reside in your dog’s mouth, making it no cleaner or dirtier than your own. (If you’re thinking about how often you brush your teeth compared to your dog, this is a friendly reminder that vets recommend you ideally brush your dog’s teeth twice daily, or a minimum of three times per week.)
Most of these bacteria are not zoonotic, meaning they do not affect humans.
However, several important exceptions exist. Dogs that consume raw meat can spread salmonella to humans. Pasteurella species–responsible for soft tissue infections, meningitis, bone and joint infections, and respiratory infections–can spread through canine licks or bites.
So is letting a dog lick your hands bad?
Not at all!
Like other aspects of dog ownership, letting your dogs lick your hands is a personal choice. Some people love being bathed in “doggy kisses.” Others don’t mind them, but draw the line at having their mouths licked. And some people prefer their dogs keep their tongues to themselves.
When is licking a problem?
Your dog licks your hands. They curl up with a toy and lick its fur off. They stand in one spot and lick the floor repeatedly. They even lick the wall.
Your dog probably isn’t professing their love for drywall. At a certain point, you’ll probably start wondering, how much licking is too much?
Excessive licking can be confused with pica, which is a type of eating disorder in dogs that manifests through the compulsive eating or licking of non-food items.
Frequently, dogs that lick compulsively but do not have pica have done so for many years, making the behavior very strong. They most likely do not differentiate between objects and will target whatever is nearby. They either cannot be interrupted or will immediately resume licking when they are.
Compulsive behaviors are more likely to develop in dogs with a history of anxiety, under-exercise, or chronic stomach issues.
While the behavior is not inherently harmful, dogs may ingest hairs, fibers, or other substances while licking miscellaneous surfaces, which can create blockages that require surgical intervention.
How do I stop my dog from licking me?
More often than not, dogs that lick are attempting to communicate.
Start by understanding what they are requesting–usually attention or affection–then determine an alternate behavior that you prefer. This behavior should be something incompatible with licking. Sitting calmly and offering eye contact are the most common, but this is up to you.
When they approach and lick you, give yourself–not your dog–a timeout. Stand up, walk away, and remove eye contact. Timeouts should be very short, no more than a few seconds. Do not use a verbal correction, as your dog may find that interaction reinforcing.
When you put yourself in a timeout, your dog will most likely become curious and stop licking to look at you. Once they are offering your preferred behavior–not licking, making eye contact–return and re-engage.