Why dogs lick people?

By Dr. Nicholas Dodman, DAVCB

CEO, Center for Canine Behavior Studies

When I was on Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson, Diane asked me why her puppy licked her face. Is it really kisses, she said? I had to take a breath because the ethological explanation for puppies licking around the lips is that it makes their dog moms regurgitate food for them. I ventured such an explanation and saw her wince a bit. However, there are other explanations for this endearing behavior that are less disgusting to us. One is that they are licking the salt off their owner’s skin. I never really put much store by this explanation and aptly so because a recent mini experiment by psychologist Dr. Stanley Coren, which he publicized on his Psychology Today blog, proved otherwise. Basically, he painted a salty solution on one of 10 owners’ knees and saw if their lick-happy dog gravitated to licking the salty knee versus the other one. They did not. End of story, or so it seems.

A third explanation is that the dog is showing affection to its owner and that’s the explanation we all hope is true. I believe it’s true so dog kisses may not be so far from the truth. My evidence is not as empirical as Dr. Coren’s but here goes. My dog Rusty is a champion licker of my wife’s face, mine too when I do not pull away. Never once has she regurgitated for him so you would think that after 13 years of failure he would have given up by now – but he hasn’t. In addition, Rusty licks my raincoat in the car when we get back from a walk on a rainy day. I reciprocate later by toweling him dry. Note: no salt there and the shoulders and arms of my rain jacket are nowhere near my lips so no hope of regurgitation. My conclusion is that his licking is genuinely a sign of affection, a kind of allogrooming – a form of altruistic behavior, if you will. I believe he thinks we like the face licking – we do – so it’s a very friendly and selfless action. As far as the raincoat licking, I think he really is trying to dry us off, not just get a quick drink. So, for those of you who think your dog is delivering doggy kisses when he licks your face – you’re close. And if he licks you to dry you off – say after getting out of the shower, again he’s trying to help. Dog’s licking therefore implies a strong bond between you both, and that’s certainly the case with my Rusty who we both love to death.


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