If you are like many dog owners, you have been spending a quiet day or evening at home when you suddenly feel a wet tongue or a pair of sharp little teeth against your heel or toes. Some dogs seem to have a particular fascination with human feet, and this often manifests as a desire to lick or bite those tempting extremities. As a human being, licking a pair of possibly smelly feet may not seem like a particularly appealing idea. You are probably aware, however, that your dog has different ideas than you do when it comes to fun ways of interacting with loved ones. For a dog, intimate contact with feet can meet some real physiological and social needs. If you are wondering what is going on in your own dog's mind when he licks your feet, here are some possibilities based on canine psychology and physiology.
The Root of the Behavior
Some dogs lick feet just because they enjoy licking things. Dr. Elizabeth Stelow, chief of animal behavior sciences with the University of California, has noted that this is a common way that dogs gather information about their environment. Licking your feet may be a particularly efficient way for your dog to learn about you, as the scent receptors in his nose and mouth are extremely receptive to the signals contained in the sweat and oil that your feet produce. Your dog may also feel attracted to the pheromones that he can smell in your feet. Little research is available about those pheromones themselves, but people have been observing their dogs chewing on their shoes, stealing their socks, and licking their toes for generations. One contributor to the publication DogWatch, released by the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, suggests that dogs' pleasure in such activities means that they take comfort in this particular kind of intimate contact.
For other dogs, licking or nosing at feet is not so much a way of bonding as a way of directing your behavior as a member of its pack. A study published by the Journal of Evolutionary Biology suggests that licking behaviors are a common way for dogs to direct others in their pack to pursue a shared goal. To you, your feet may seem to be his end goal, but he may be hoping that this grooming behavior could entice you to feed him, play with him, or otherwise interact in a way that meets both of your needs. If your dog is a herding breed, and he seems to like nipping at your feet as well as licking them, it is likely that this goal is simply to herd you. Your dog may also be licking your feet because he is experiencing stress. For dogs, licking is a soothing action that releases feel-good endorphins. Targeting your feet may also be a way of seeking comfort from you as his pack leader. Some dogs' motivations are more straightforward – they simply like the taste of the salt in your sweat. However, Stelow does point out that some dogs seek out this sweat because of a nutritional deficiency.
Encouraging the Behavior
So, when your feet become your dog's favorite salt lick, how much should you worry? For most dogs, it isn't a big deal. If your dog's foot-licking seems particularly compulsive, however, a visit to the vet may be in order. This may tell you whether there is any medical or psychological issue going on. If so, treating the condition may help your dog to back off on the licking. If everything is normal, you may just have a foot-licker on your hands. Remember that this behavior, however unusual it may seem, is a sign that your dog feels comfortable with you and safe in your home. By licking your feet, he is bonding with you as a fellow member of his pack. If you are relatively unbothered by your dog licking your feet, you can feel free to let it happen. It is unlikely to harm the dog at all, and it can strengthen his sense of connection to you both immediately and in the long term. You can even encourage him to lick by offering him your feet when he seems stressed, as you would offer him a comfort blanket if he were a human child. You may find that the look of happiness in his eyes as he gazes at you is worth the occasional sloppiness of his kiss.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Of course, you may understand all of this and still feel squeamish or simply ticklish when your dog licks your feet. Veterinarians recommend that if you need to discourage this behavior, you do so kindly and without shouting at or punishing the dog. Licking is a natural instinct for dogs, and punishing such instincts can make your dog feel less safe around you. Instead, whenever your dog starts to lick or nip at your feet, redirect it toward another, more desirable action, such as sitting or giving a paw. You can then reward the behavior, thus keeping the dog away from your feet without breaking his spirit. If your dog is of the foot-nipping sort as well, discouraging this particular behavior may be even more important than redirecting licking. Experts recommend keeping a toy in your pocket that you can dangle in front of the dog when he goes for your feet, while fun balls to chase can satisfy his herding instinct when he is at home or at the dog park.
You may never truly figure out what your dog is thinking when he chooses to spend a few minutes enthralled by your feet. As long as he is healthy, it's perfectly fine to keep some mystery between you. Just know that a fascination with your feet most often means a fascination with you, quite possibly his favorite person. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the “puppy love!”