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Why Does My Dog Lick My Hand?

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. September 13, 2022
Why Does My Dog Lick My Hand?

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When we see the many unsavory places our dog likes to put their tongue, having our hands licked is not always the most pleasant sensation. Some of us find it unhygienic, while others will happily let them lap away to their heart's content. The act of a dog licking our hands is not wrong in and of itself, but it will depend on the context. As with all canine behavior, there is a reason behind this action and it will communicate something between dog and guardian. To understand what the dog is trying to communicate, we need to ask why does my dog lick my hand?

At AnimalWised, we look at the reasons dogs lick hands and what it has to say about the well-being of the dog. We also use it to better understand the relationship with have with our canine family.

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

Why do dogs lick?

Before we find out why does my dog lick my hands, we should learn about why dogs lick in the first place. Dogs have paws, but they cannot use them to manipulate or investigate their environment the same way that we can with our hands. This means they have to rely on using their eyes, nose and even tongue to better understand what is going on around them.

We can see the origin of this licking behavior in the wolf, the animal with which the domestic dog shares a common ancestor. One of the main social characteristics of wolves which is shared by wild dogs is hunting in groups. Unlike felids which are solitary, canids hunt in packs. When hunting, they can travel very long distances, far away form their den where their pups are raised.

As wolf pups rely on the pack for sustenance, they anxiously await the return of the adult wolves. After a successful hunt, the wolves will eat ravenously and ingest as much food as possible. This behavior can be carried out thanks to a stomach which is allowed to expand and dilate widely. This allows them to bring more food to the rest of the pack, as well as survive longer during times of scarcity.

When the pups notice the arrival of the adult group after a hunt, they will greet them as they enter the den. Once they do so, the pups will begin compulsively licking the snout of the adults. This licking action stimulates a nervous system reflex which induces regurgitation of their food. This allows the puppies to have access to the food so they can feed.

Although the licking behavior is rooted in this need when they are a puppy, wolves continue to lick into adulthood. They do so as a form of respect and submission to higher ranking members of the pack. They also lick to groom themselves and others in their pack, although not to the degree of felines.

With this context of licking in canids, we are better able to answer the question why dogs my dog lick my hand? Below we explain the main reasons for hand licking in dogs.

Why Does My Dog Lick My Hand? - Why do dogs lick?

1. They love you

One of the main reasons a dog will lick your hand is a simply show of affection. When we share our lives with dogs, a strong bond will develop if the relationship is a healthy one. Although wolf pups will lick a lot to show affection and instigate play, adult wolves do not do it as much.

Dogs in the domestic environment do not have the insecurity of wild dogs. They see us as both their point of reference and their caretaker since we provide for all of their basic needs. For this reason, we can say that domestic dogs do not grow up in the same way. This is why our dog will often lick our hand and want to show affection, whether they are a puppy or an adult dog.

2. They want your attention

Dogs learn by association. By licking your hand, they usually discover one of two things. They tend to find out you either love it or you hate it. Either way, licking the hand of their guardian usually gets their attention.

For this reason, dogs may lick our hand when they want something. This will be especially the cae if there is food in our hand as they are often directing us to our own snacks in the hope we will share. This is normal and not something which should concern caregivers.

There is an exception. If our dog wants our attention all the time and keeps licking our hand for this reason, it could be because they are being neglected. Different dogs will need different levels of physical, cognitive and emotional stimulation. If you are not providing enough of these, the dog may keep licking your hand because they are desperate for attention.

Learn more about dog licking behavior with our article on why dogs lick our feet.

3. They are afraid of you

As we have already stated, context is everything. When your dog licks you hand, we need to look at how they do it. If they do it excitedly and are wagging their tail, it is clearly a sign of happiness with you.

If your dog licks your hand furtively and slowly, it could be a sign they are afraid of you. If their ears are back, their tail is down and they are generally submissive, there is at least an implication of fear. This is particularly common in dogs which have been abused or neglected, but it can also develop if a problem develops between dog and guardian.

Dogs provide calming signals as part of their body language. They use these signals to stop fights with others and to prevent violent situations. If a dog licks your hand in this way, they feel insecure and think you want to do them harm. By licking your hand, they are trying to show you they pose no threat.

4. They are cleaning you

Although dogs do not groom with their tongue as much as cats, they still lick for hygiene purposes. If they have something on their coat, they will lick to remove dirt and stains.

Since our dog has such an acute sense of smell, they may think register something on our hands. Even if we cannot sea it, our dog might lick our hands as a way to clean them. This is also a sign of affection, but it shows they care enough about us to maintain our well-being. Of course, if we have been eating something tasty, they may simply be happy enough to clean us and get a tasty treat at the same time.

5. They want to wake us up

Going back to wolves in the wild, these animals will lick to wake each other up gently. In the wild, they may not want to make too much noise, especially in the den. For this reason, howling or barking will not be appropriate. By licking the face and other sensitive areas of other pack members, they can wake up the animals when it is time to hunt or stay alert.

When our dog licks our hands while we are still in bed, it could be due to wanting food, a walk or whatever it is we can't give them while asleep. They will know better not to bark and disturb us, but licking our hand can be a sign they want us to get up.

Learn more about what our dog is trying to say to us with our article on why dogs lay their heads on us.

Why Does My Dog Lick My Hand? - 5. They want to wake us up

How to prevent my dog from licking my hands

In this case, the context of the animal's behavior needs to be taken into account. If they are licking our hands every once in a while as a sign of affection, stopping it might not be helpful. However, if they are doing it compulsively or we have a particular concern about hygiene, we need to redirect this behavior.

We can stop our dog licking our hands firstly by removing them when they try to do so. When they stop, we can reward them with positive reinforcement. Never scold or punish them as this can worsen the situation and even generate fear. Since fear can be a reason dogs lick our hands, it can be completely counterproductive.

It is also important to assess whether their basic and individual needs are covered. If they are feeling neglected or understimulated, we need to pay more attention to them and ensure we are taking care of their specific needs. This could mean taking them out for more exercise or it could simply mean we need to pay more attention to them. If these approaches do not work, you may need to speak to a canine ethologist.

If you want to read similar articles to Why Does My Dog Lick My Hand?, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.

Bibliography
  • Morris, D. (1996). Guide to understanding dogs. Ed. EMECE.
  • Beaver, B. (1999). Canine Behavior: A guide for Veterinarians. Ed. Saunders.

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