Your dog, Sparky, does it all the time. He splatters goobery licks all over your face. You could be sitting innocently watching TV; you could be sleeping; you could be bending down to pick something up...you get the point. But, why do dogs lick? And is it okay to allow your loving Sparky to plant those wet kisses on your face? You may not know it, but you are probably reinforcing Sparky's behavior by giving in to the saliva-filled affection. But could Sparky's licks possibly be a sign of something more, and what if there were a possibility that Sparky's licks could actually make you sick?
The Root of the Behavior
For the most part, dog licking is completely normal and part of their nature. Dogs lick for various reasons including sensory exploration, the need for affection, to taste the remnants of food, and more. Dogs are born with the experience of licking. Right after birth, their mother does what? Well, licks them of course. She needs to clean them up. She even licks them to cleanse them of other nasty stuff, like fecal matter and dirt, yum! This affiliation with licking makes dogs associate it with something positive. Dogs lick their owners because they love you and know your taste, just like they know your scent. Dogs enjoy your taste and scent; even those scents seem to be bad to us. This is why you make sure your underwear is out of reach for Sparky. Dogs also lick other dogs to show submission. You’ve probably seen Sparky sniffing and possibly licking another dog’s butt or face. This seems gross to us but is a natural way of showing submission, a common attribute for pack animals.
Dog licking goes back even further to before domestication when dogs used to welcome other dogs to the pack by licking them. Those goobery kisses were a way of bonding and expressing trust and loyalty with other animals. Also, lower-ranked dogs in a pack commonly lick a higher-ranked dog in the pack to show a respect and acknowledge dominance. This licking also preserves the equilibrium of the pack. In some cases, excessive licking could have something to do with allergies or be a more serious medical condition, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Yes, dogs get this too. Usually, abnormal licking is easy to spot. If your dog is constantly licking all day or licking random items that have no remnants of food, you should continue to be observant and get your pooch checked out.
Encouraging the Behavior
As stated above, many owners encourage the licking behavior by giving in to it and providing positive affection to a kissing dog. Licking actually releases endorphins and, if encouraged, dogs will continue to do it. If this doesn't annoy you, and you are unafraid of germs, then you might choose to carry on as is.
Also, mothers licking their pups is a good thing, a mother's tongue cleans them, creates a bond, and provides pups with a sense of security and safety in a very new world. Mothers that lick their pups even stimulate breathing. This early licking makes dogs develop a very positive association with licking that they will most likely transfer to their human owners.
A study conducted in the UK and Brazil argued that dog licking might also be a way to signal more complex emotions. In the study, dogs were shown pictures of happy human faces and angry human faces. It appeared that more dogs went to lick the angry faces then the happy faces. This may remind you of when you recently had a fight with your spouse over folding laundry and Sparky came to the rescue with licks galore.
But back to the study: Author Natalia Albuquerque, from the University of Sao Paulo said, "Mouth-licking was triggered by visual cues only."' Another interesting finding in that same study was that when dogs were shown pictures of angry and happy dogs, the licking was nowhere near as prevalent as it was with the human pictures. This suggests that dogs may be more conditioned to providing affection to humans in need than their own kind.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Although it is mostly natural for dogs to lick, it can become more of a problem for humans. If it annoys you, ignore it, and eventually, your dog should stop seeking attention through splattering saliva on your face. You also could provide more stimulation for your dog, since licking can be a sign of boredom. If your dog's licking seems compulsive, like your dog licks the same part of the window every day, consult your veterinarian. Perhaps the biggest concern about dog licking is the fact that the bacteria in a dog's saliva could actually be dangerous to humans.
Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, an assistant professor of medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, wrote that most animals' mouths host "an enormous oral microbiome of bacteria, viruses, and yeast." Yuck! This might make you think twice when Sparky comes at you with his hanging tongue, but he's just oh so cute.
It's up to you if you want to have Sparky cut down on his licking or continue the smacking. It's okay for him to lick his other four-legged friends. After all, he was born into a licking frenzy with his mom and litter. Sparky also shows signs of submission by licking his friends, and this is also okay. But, if you are a germaphobe, when it comes to Sparky licking your face, even though it is most likely because of the domesticated bond instilled in him over time, you might want to try petting him instead, or at least washing your face when Sparky's done.