My Dog Won't Stop Licking Me - Causes of Excessive Licking
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There is no doubt a dog licks you because they are expressing love and affection. It is a demonstration of attachment, highlighting their security in your presence and suggesting a strong bond between the two of you. As with any behavior, compulsive or excessive licking by the dog might indicate there is an issue. To understand, we need to look at this issue from a clinical and ethological point of view.
In this AnimalWised article on my dog won't stop licking me, we look at the causes of excessive licking and what you can do about it. We do so by revealing how dogs communicate and why it is so important to understand what they are saying.
Why does my dog lick me so much?
The origin of this behavior is atavistic. Its roots lie in the domestic dog's ancestor, the wolf. Licking begins when they are pups. As part of the communication between pack and individual, licking can be an important tool when it comes to many different aspects of their lives. Hunting is one of the most important and it is something adult wolves will pass on to their offspring.
One of the most important characteristics of wolves is that they usually hunt in packs, traveling long distances to do so and moving far away from the den where their young have to shelter. Each time the adults leave, the young eagerly await their return to the den. When the group has a successful hunt, the animals will eat whatever they can quickly and voraciously. This is possible due to a large stomach which can hold up to 25 lb of food at a given time.
A wolf's subsequent return to the den has the pups very excited. They exit the den and rush to the hunters, jumping and anticipating food. You will also see them licking the snouts of the adult wolves. This incessant licking isn't simply a display of eagerness to eat. A biological process takes place whereby the licking generates a reflex in the adult wolf and they regurgitate some food for the young. It is believed this ancestral trait is passed onto the domestic dog also.
Since dogs have been domesticated, we humans have taken over their guardian role. In some ways, the dogs never truly grow up since they always have us as a reference figure. For this reason, they often exhibit behaviors of younger animals which dogs in the wild do not always maintain. Licking us is only one such behavior.
The first thing we need to know when we question why our dog won't stop licking us is whether they are doing so excessively. It might be that our dog licks us a lot, but they could simply be very affectionate with us. In these cases, we need to be careful. We do not want to scold our dog for simply enacting a healthy behavior or prevent them from doing so.
We need to look at other reasons why a dog won't stop licking us and whether it is healthy behavior. Before we do, you might want to check our related article on signs your dog loves you.
Reasons why dogs lick us
For the reasons explained above, we want to understand why a dog might be licking us all the time. Whether a healthy or unhealthy expression, we need to know what they are trying to say to us. It could be due to:
- Smell: a dog's sense of smell is thousands of times more acute than our own due to the much greater number of olfactory receptors they possess. If we notice our dog comes up to lick us when or after we are eating, it is possible they want to experience some of the deliciousness they may think is on offer. They may still do this even when they have enough of their own food. If they do it excessively, it is worth checking to see they are receiving the correct nutrition and amount of food.
- Bad habit: we should not go near our dog's mouth as the bacteria within can cause us health problems. Unfortunately, many dog guardians will not only allow, but encourage a dog to lick our mouth as if they are giving them a kiss. When a dog gets into the habit of doing so, they may think we want it all the time and the result may be excessive licking.
- Attention: similar to wolf pups licking the snouts in their pack, dogs may lick us because they want food or anything else. This is a problem if they are never satiated.
- Boredom: each dog is an individual with specific needs in terms of exercise and engagement. If these needs are not met, they may lick us excessively because they need to distract themselves. When they do not have sufficient engagement, the result is negative behaviors in various forms.
- Comfort: when we are stressed or unhappy, our dog may come and lick us to make us feel better. Dogs are very sensitive animals and can discern our mood easily, wanting to show us affection when we are down. It is even possible the dog is doing it when we are unaware how down we are.
- Stress: while a dog may lick us when we are stressed, they may also do it when they are feeling anxious. Dogs are creatures of routine and need a certain amount of security to feel comfortable. When their security is threatened, they may come to us and lick us to help themselves feel calm down. It is a compulsive behavior which needs to be addressed and may be observed along with other signs of stress in dogs.
Licking excessively can be a sign of serious mental stress. This is especially so when we see them licking things they normally shouldn't. This is explained further in our article on why my dog is licking metal.
Why does my dog lick my feet, hands, mouth or face?
In general, the reasons why a dog licks any part of our body is due to the various reasons listed above. There are some specific things we should consider, however. For example:
- My dog licks my face: they may smell food or another enticing aroma on our breath. It is also related to their ancestors since our mouths are the closet equivalent to a snout.
- My dog licks my feet: while it may seem unpleasant to us, the smell of our feet can be enticing to our dog. To an animal which licks another dog's anal glands to find out information about them, they may do the same to our feet.
- My dog licks my hands: similarly, smells on our hands from touching things can cause a dog to lick them to learn more. Also, if we have touched another animal, the dog will likely want to investigate due to territoriality.
For further information about why a dog licks different body parts, take a look at our video on why does my dog lick me?:
How to stop a dog licking you
Firstly, we need to decide whether the licking is normal behavior or one which is excessive or compulsive. Licking us a little as part of their communication is not something which usually needs to be rectified, even if we need to discourage them from licking our mouths.
In cases when the dog's licking implies they have a problem, we need to determine what it is. We should look at the context and see if there are any reasons why they may be stressed or anxious. Have we done something different to the home? Have there been any changes to the family dynamic? The presence of a new child or pet can be particularly disruptive. Often the dog will lick us out of a fear they will be abandoned in these cases.
When licking becomes excessive we need to know not to scold or hit them. The behavior is natural, even if it is inconvenient for us. Scolding them will confuse them and, most likely, make the situation worse. We need to educate them and train them not to do this.
Removing ourselves when a dog starts to lick us should help them to know it is something we do not like. When they stop licking, we can reward them with positive reinforcement such as petting and positive words. This benefits you and your dog by improving your bond. Offering a toy as an alternative to licking can also be helpful.
Since boredom can be a major impetus to lick us excessively, we need to ensure their needs are being met. Take them out for longer walks, engage in exercise with them or even ask someone else to walk them if we don't have the time. Games and toys will also help to encourage cognitive function. The result is usually a more content dog which will not feel the need to lick us as much.
If we cannot work out why the dog is licking us so much, especially if it happens all of a sudden, we need to take them to the veterinarian. They can examine the problem and rule out any physical reasons. They may also recommend employing a trainer or ethologist to help resolve the problem.
Should I let my dog lick me?
Finally, we address whether we should let a dog lick us at all. Some people will see letting a dog lick us as being socially unacceptable. However, this is not any reason to stop doing it. The reason to stop doing it is hygiene. A dog is able to handle bacteria in their mouth which would otherwise make us very sick.
For example, dogs will greet another dog by sniffing their anal glands near their rectum. They may also lick the urine of other dogs to find out information from them. Canine fecal matter can be very harmful to a human, even if the dog has no problem with it. We should not let a dog lick our mouth if this happens.
We can let a dog lick our hands or feet, but we should always wash afterwards. If we do not, we promote poor hygiene for the household. Microbes which promote disease may not cause us a direct problem, but we need to be careful of anyone in the home who may be vulnerable such as pregnant women, children or seniors.
If you want to read similar articles to My Dog Won't Stop Licking Me - Causes of Excessive Licking, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.