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Why Do Dogs Lick Your Feet?

 
By Ricardo Luis Bruno, Veterinarian and ethologist. January 3, 2021
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Feet?

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We may have understanding of why a dog licks their own feet. Licking helps to keep clean their paws, one of the dirtiest parts of their body. This might lead some to feeling a little offended since dogs are also known to enjoy licking human feet. If we assume this means we have dirty feet, we need to know there are many reasons why dogs lick our feet as well as their own. Most are positive and indicative of the strong bond we develop with dogs. As with with all canine behavior, when it becomes excessive, it might reveal a problem with their well-being.

At AnimalWised, we ask why do dogs lick your feet? We look at the reasons for dogs licking human feet, both positive and negative, as well as what we can do to stop it when the behavior becomes problematic.

You may also be interested in: Why Does My Dog Lick the Ground?

Licking behavior in dogs

Licking behavior in dogs is more revealing than many of us think. Firstly, we need to consider the physiology of canines. We know that dogs have an incredible sense of smell and keen eyesight, but we often neglect to consider their tactile senses. Unlike humans who use our hands to feel out our environment, dogs will often use their tongues.

For dogs, licking allows them to investigate various objects and organisms they may come across. This is particularly important for wild dogs since they don't have the benefit of having a guardian provide their security and basic needs. In the wild, dogs will lick the ground to track prey or to find out other information about their environment. Since this is an innate behavior guided by the evolution of their species, we also see similar behaviors in domestic dogs.

When it comes to their social group, wild dogs will lick family members to help strengthen their emotional bond as well as meet their practical needs. Domestic dogs also do the same.

Although cats are known for being particularly hygienic, dogs also use their tongues to keep themselves and their loved ones clean. Licking enables the dog to remove dirt which accumulates on their fur, especially if they have been unable to clean themselves in water. The licking action also helps to remove tangles in their fur and get rid of ectoparasites which attach to their skin or hair.

By maintaining hygiene for themselves and others, dogs help to avoid pathologies such as dermatitis and other skin diseases caused by poor hygiene and parasites. Prevention is aided by the dog's saliva. Canine saliva contains various chemicals with bactericidal properties[1]. In particular, it is known to be effective in combating E. coli and S. canis[2]. When dogs lick each their wounds, there is evidence to support they are providing some medical support to help them heal.

The licking of both fur and wounds is not something they only do for themselves. They also perform it on other members of their pack, something which helps to promote a strong and positive bond. How does this relate to why dogs lick our feet?

Positive reasons why dogs lick your feet

We cannot extrapolate all canine behaviors and apply them to how they interact with humans. However, we can look at the context of their behaviors to help understand what they are trying to convey. When your dog licks your feet, this context can help us understand why they are doing it. While excessive licking can belie a problem, most reasons why dogs lick your feet are generally positive:

  • Our feet are tasty: there are many tastes and smells humans love which dogs hate, but this goes both ways. Our feet, especially if we have been sweating, have salts which dogs can find delectable. Although we might find it pretty disgusting, our dogs might lick our feet because they find them tasty, especially if we have just gone for a run or performed general exercise.

  • They want attention: dogs will do many things to get our attention, including leaning on us or barking. Licking for attention is something deeply related to their youth. Wolf pups and wild dogs will lick the snout of their parents to stimulate a reflex which makes them regurgitate food they have ingested. Our dogs might lick us as a way to get our attention, but they lick our feet because they may have easier access than our face.

  • It provides information: by licking our feet, dogs can find out information about us and our well-being. Due to their highly developed sense of smell, aided by licking, they can find out where we have been and also sense how we are due to our hormone levels.

  • They want to clean us: mother dogs will lick their puppies to keep them clean, stimulate defecation and provide general care. When our feet smell or have any dirt on them, it is not uncommon for our dog to lick them to keep them clean. Even when our feet aren't particularly dirty, our dog might lick them as a way to maintain general hygiene.

  • They love us: we have stressed the important practical reasons why dogs lick us, but it is important to know the emotional reasons. Mother dogs will also lick their puppies as a way to show them affection and reassure them.Dogs lick our feet and legs for the same reason. Since they cannot speak the same verbal language, licking our feet is a way to communicate the affection they have for us and the protection they want to provide.

  • We let them: when our dog first licks our feet, we might respond in various ways. We might like it and laugh, we might ignore them and let them keep going, or we may even tell them to stop it. If we respond in a positive way or even reward them with our own display of affection, dogs will want to lick our feet because they see it as a positive experience for both them and us.

Negative reasons why dogs lick your feet

As with almost any behavior, if a dog keeps licking our feet constantly, it might mean they are experiencing a problem. There might be a health issue, but the most likely reasons dogs lick your feet excessively is due to a behavioral problem. Since they are licking our feet, we also need to question whether our behavior is influencing their problem.

  • They are underfed: while there are more obvious symptoms of a malnourished dog, licking our feet might be a subtle one. Since we have salts on our feet, the dog may lick us because they think doing so can provide nourishment.

  • They don't get enough attention: we have explained that licking our feet might be a way to get our attention, so excessive licking of our feet might mean we are not giving them enough.

  • They have a health problem: if a dog keeps licking us suddenly, then it might mean they have something wrong with them. Dogs want our attention for various reasons, but we are not always able to pick up on them. Some canine pathologies do not have obvious symptoms, but the dog still feels unwell. In these cases, they might keep licking our feet to draw our attention to their health issue.

  • They are anxious: if your dog licks your feet excessively, but you feel you are providing enough attention, it is also possible they are anxious. Separation anxiety occurs in dogs due to fear and insecurity. When we are not around, we are afraid we will not return or that their security will be taken away from them. If they keep licking our feet, they may be trying to reassure themselves we will still stick around for them. Other forms of anxiety or stress in dogs may also lead to this behavior.

Excessively licking our feet or our dog suddenly licking our feet all the time implies something is wrong. If we cannot determine the problem ourselves, we need to take the dog to a veterinarian to help diagnose their issues, whether physical or psychological.

Why Do Dogs Lick Your Feet? - Negative reasons why dogs lick your feet

How to stop a dog licking your feet

As we have explained above, dogs licking your feet is not necessarily a bad thing. It often shows you have a strong and healthy bond with your canine companion. However, it can be unhygienic and an unpleasant experience for many of us. For these reasons, we may want to stop a dog from licking our feet. To do so, we can:

  • Divert their attention: diverting the dog's behavior to another activity can be a good solution to wean your dog off of this type of behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement: positive reinforcement can also be a very useful tool to re-educate your dog. When your dog starts to lick your feet, you can firmly tell them to stop it (do not hit or scold your dog). When they stop the action, you can provide them with a treat or some other positive affirmation which helps them understand it is something they should avoid.
  • Basic education: this is not only a helpful way to stop a dog licking your feet, but a vital part of any dog's care. During basic education training, you will train your dog to understand certain commands. ‘No’ and ‘stop’ are two fundamentals. If you have been able to teach them these commands, you should be able to use them to stop licking behavior.
  • See an ethologist: dog trainers and ethologists can help us at times when we are unable to solve a problem with our dog. They can use their expert knowledge to assess the dog's well-being, find out why they are licking your feet and use helpful techniques to prevent this behavior.

For any dog, the education (or reeducation) of your dog is achieved using the rule of 3 P's: patience, practice and perseverance. When we respect the dog and give them time, we should see they learn quickly and easily.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Do Dogs Lick Your Feet?, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

References

1. Sanguansermsri, P., et al. (2018). Comparative proteomic study of dog and human saliva. PLoS ONE, 13(12): e0208317.
https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0208317

2. Hart, B. L., & Powell, K. L. (1990). Antibacterial properties of saliva: role in maternal periparturient grooming and in licking wounds. Physiology & Behavior, 48(3), 383-386.
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2125128/

Bibliography
  • Morris, D. (1996). Guide to understanding dogs. Ed. EMECÉ.
  • Lorenz, K. (1989). When the man found the dog. Eds. Tusquets.
  • Lorenz, K. (1985). Considerations on animal and human behavior. Ed. Planeta-Agostini.

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