My Dog Won't Stop Licking My Face
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Some of us see a dog licking someone's face as a beautiful expression of love for our canine best friends. Others see it as a fast track to intestinal parasites. Whatever we think of this behavior, it is more important to understand what the dog means to convey with it. Since dogs use their body language to express various emotions, it is important for us to recognize them and interpret them correctly. Doing so requires us to look at the context of the dog face licking.
At AnimalWised, we find out why my dog won't stop licking my face? We understand what they might be trying to communicate to their guardians through face licking, as well as find out whether it is a behavior we should allow in our dogs.
Sign of affection
One of the most common reason a dog keeps licking your face is to show affection. This can be in the form of excitedly jumping up to lick your face to greet you when you return home or simply giving you a quick lick when snuggling up to you on the couch. It is a behavior which is rooted in our dog's genetic ancestry, something we can see when we look at their wild cousins, the wolf.
In a wolf pack, adult wolves hunt for food while the wolf cubs hungrily await their return. Since they often need to travel long distances to find prey, the adult wolves will need to replenish and store energy as much as is needed. This involves the wolf eating large quantities of food and storing it in their stomachs. These stomachs are specially adapted to dilate so they can store as much food as possible.
When the adults return home, the dog's need to regurgitate the stored food for their young. This regurgitation is stimulated by the wolf cubs licking the nose of the adults. When they lick, the food is regurgitated and the cubs are fed.
Applying this behavior to dogs, we can see that our canines see us as the leader of their pack. This is true even if you are a pack of two. Even though you are unlikely to regurgitate anything to keep them sustained, the dog may lick you to show you they see you as their reference figure. They want to have your approval and even show you gratitude for the care you provide.
This understanding of why your dog keeps licking your face is strengthened by the fact mother dogs, wolves and other canines lick their young as soon as they are born. It is a sign of protection and affection. During their first days and on through the weaning process in dogs, the mother licks their young to transmit feelings of security. For the puppy, their licking allows them to feed and explore the environment around them.
To get your attention
As referenced in the introduction, dog face licking can provoke various reactions. Whether it is something you enjoy or something you cannot stand, it is important to know it will get our attention. If your dog keeps licking your face to wake you up, it is usually a sign they want something from you. Most often, this will be for you to provide them food or even simply some attention.
It is not wrong for a dog to want to see you first thing in the morning. If we have a healthy relationship with our dog, then they will look forward to seeing us and want any day we can spend together to start ASAP. However, when a dog keeps licking our face to get our attention, it may mean we are not providing enough in the first place.
One of the most important factors is whether we are providing the right level of basic care. Dogs require appropriate levels of nutrition and enough food to keep them satiated. If we do not provide the right diet for our dog, it can result in them trying to let us know they are deficient. How we give the dog food is also important. Dogs crave routine, so those of us who sleep in or regularly miss feeding can find their dog will constantly try to get our attention through licking.
We must ensure we meet our dog's needs. Neglect can have various repercussions in our dog's behavior, more than just licking behavior. It can result in serious consequences to their health and wellbeing.
An important part of a dog's body language is something known as calming signals. These are signs the dog uses to convey important messages during periods of heightened emotion. For example, if a dog feels attacked by another dog, they may drop their ears and slouch to show the other dog they don't want a fight.
Licking is also a calming signal in dogs. Dogs will also often combine calming signals to express different emotions or petitions in a given context. Since they are calming signals, they usually want to convey some form of appeasement to us such as not wanting to get trouble or expressing feelings of discomfort. For this reason, our dog may keep licking our face because they want us to stop doing something which makes them feel insecure.
Unfortunately, many dogs do this because their tutors are not good at understanding their body language and calming signals. Since licking our face can also be a sign of affection, it is understandable many of us might not realize the dog wants us to stop a behavior. This is why it is so important for us to look at any behavior in context. A dog may want us to stop some of the following common behaviors:
- Holding, hugging or kissing us inappropriately
- Looking into their eyes for prolonged periods
- Using a loud voice to them
- Blowing air onto their face
These behaviors are common annoyances for dogs. If a dog feels sufficiently insecure or threatened, they can become aggressive. If our dog keeps licking our face to stop us from doing something inappropriate and we ignore it, it can lead to serious problems. For this reason, we need to consider our own behavior if our dog keeps licking our face.
The calming signals we discussed above are also intensified when a dog is in a stressful environment or experiences a stressful situation. Apart from having their communication be ignored, there are various stressors in a dog's life. Some are more obvious than others.
For example, if we bring a new animal into the home and they bully the dog, this can be an obvious cause of stress. Our dog may come lick our face more often as they feel insecure and threatened. Less obviously, a sedentary lifestyle can cause our dog to become stressed and lick our face out of a need for attention. Although we may provide the dog's basic needs, if we do not also cover their specific individual needs it can lead to problems.
It is important to recognize the main symptoms of stress in a dog's life. In addition to the dog licking our face, they may become agitated, lose appetite or even become aggressive. For this reason, it is vital we go to a veterinarian. They will first rule out any pathological causes of stress in dogs. If the source of their stress is emotional, they can help assess their wellbeing and even recommend an ethologist who can provide specific practical guidance.
Traumas or phobias
Many of the dogs that keep licking our face compulsively are rescue dogs. Many of these dogs have experienced trauma at the hands of previous owners or as a result of abandonment. In these cases, the dog will have even more need for security since they have led such insecure lives in the past.
The origin of some phobias in dogs can be more difficult to place. Problems with socialization or previous experiences about which we are unaware can influence their need to feel comforted by licking our face. Even a sedentary lifestyle or a lack of stimulation can result in the same behaviors.
As with stress in dogs, you will need to assess the animal. This will begin by going to the veterinarian. Physical illness and pathological causes can lead to your dog needing to feel more comfort. In these cases, the dog may keep licking your face to tell you that something doesn't feel right. If this is the case, examination by the vet will lead to diagnosis and administration of treatment where possible.
Once a physical problem has been ruled out, they can help to assess the emotional state of the animal. In these cases, an ethologist can also be of great help. With dogs that have experienced significant trauma, it is common for the process to take some time. Providing them with suitable education, positive reinforcement and a lot of patience will be some of the best allies in this process.
Should I let my dog lick my face?
When not carried out compulsively or obsessively, licking your face is a completely healthy expression for the dog. If they don't have reason to be stressed and you have a healthy bond together, the dog will simply be expressing their canine instinct. Stopping a dog expressing themselves can have negative repercussions, especially if we do not redirect the behavior appropriately.
Unlike the dog licking your feet or another part of your body, licking your face creates a more direct hygiene issue. The mouths of dogs contain various bacteria which do not cause a problem for them, but which can lead to issues for us. Since a dog licks our mouth, they may introduce these bacteria into the start of our gastrointestinal system. This can lead to digestive issues such as diarrhea. Since some dogs will eat their own feces or the feces of other animals, licking our face can be particularly unhygienic.
If a dog is otherwise healthy and we know they have not been eating anything particularly unhygienic, licking our face should not cause significant problems. For this reason, whether you let your dog lick your face is at your discretion.
What we must never do is scold or hit the dog if they lick our face. Not only is this ineffective, but the use of negative reinforcement can have various repercussions on the dog's behavior. If we want to stop a dog licking our face, we need to redirect the behavior to some thing more appropriate. For example, when they try to lick our face, we can give them a chew toy or a bone to let them express this behavior without causing them feelings of insecurity.
Learn how to do this in more detail with our article on the best way to discipline a puppy for biting or bad behavior.
If you want to read similar articles to My Dog Won't Stop Licking My Face, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.