When a dog licks your hand with a long, slow sloppy lick, the message he gives you is one of love and affection. If you happen to have the taste of something you have just eaten added into the mix, your dog will be even happier. Dogs have been licking since they were puppies and so licking your hand is a positive reminder of those early puppy days. The intensity of the lick and the soft gaze in your dog’s eyes will send a clear message of respect for you as the pack leader. Sometimes licking can be more frantic and urgent and seem obsessive. This could be a sign of stress that your dog is trying to communicate to you. All types of behavior are ways to tell us something so it is best to listen and act if your dog’s behavior is out of the ordinary.
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs are motivated by their senses. What better way could there be to smell, touch and taste you than by licking your hands. This is a measure of their best greeting ever. Dogs like to lick your hand not only to greet you and say hello but also to get a taste of your delicious salty skin. We taste good to dogs and they like to show us that we are something that they enjoy being around with a big, sloppy lick on the hand. Our hands are usually the first parts of our body that reach out to dogs and so it is natural for your dog to give your hand a lick.
When your dog gives your hand a lick, he can find out more things about you. Things like - where have you been, did you meet other dogs or people, have you brought a treat back to share? Licking is a sign of respect that dates back to the submissive dog in the wild. The pack leader was licked by the other dogs as he came home from the hunt and was reunited with the pack. Licking from your dog on your hand shows that your dog is your obedient friend and that you are the chosen leader of the pack. There is no dominance in the dog as he licks your hand affectionately. Friendly Fido may also be grooming you and licking you as a way of showing you are loved and therefore treated to a good clean-up.
Obsessive licking of your hand in a more urgent fashion could have a different meaning. Licking urgently could indicate some separation anxiety from a dog that has been left alone and was fearful. This urgent licking could indicate your dog has spent time in isolation and really craves some affection and interaction with you. If you experience frantic licking from your dog, then look at the situation and try to understand what it could be that is causing the excessive licking. It is not pleasurable for you or for your dog. Body language is the most effective communicator in ‘dog speak’ circles so take note of compulsive licking and act accordingly.
Encouraging the Behavior
Licking your hand is the best way your dog can say ‘I love you’ even if it is a bit slobbery. A happy healthy dog will want to shower you with his style of kisses in the form of licks to your hands. Licking is a way of bonding and showing affection. Your dog tells you that he trusts you as he licks your hands and looks lovingly at you. Even when you come after working all day your dog will be there to greet you with a loving lick. There may also be an element of begging as your dog knows good treats are found in your hands. Sniffing and licking your hands will help him decide if you have a treat to share and what must be done to get that treat. Licking is pleasurable and calming for your dog if it is a slow calm gentle lick. Frantic licking is not calming and may give you a different message. Look around and pay attention to the frantic licking that does not give out a calm state of mind. The message could just be one of separation anxiety or a nervous dog responding to other sights and sounds that cause anxiety. If you are unsure of what this excessive licking means, then an animal behaviorist could help by assessing the dog in the environment that is causing him stress.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Understanding that affectionate licking of your hands is just the way your dog shows his love and respect for you makes it easier to accept that this is normal positive behavior. The amount of licking you are prepared to tolerate is up to you. However, knowing that your dog’s licking is a happy event makes it easier to take a few licks and not get angry or frustrated. The problem of too much licking could be stopped with a simple obedience command of sit and stay while everyone gets settled and your dog calms down after greeting you in the best way he knows. This greeting will be the same greeting you receive if you have been out of the room for a few minutes or away for the day. Your dog will consistently give you the same measure of love each time you meet and greet each other. If you miss the greeting ritual, then perhaps your dog is not well, and you have another signal to read in ‘dog speak.’