Why Do Dogs Lick People?

There’s no doubt dogs are affectionate creatures. And they have numerous ways of showing it. So what’s the deal when your furry friend comes up and gives you a big ol’ pooch smooch? Let’s take a tongue-in-cheek look into why.

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You taste great … or at least interesting

Dogs are oral creatures and gather a lot of information about their surroundings through taste and smell. Maybe you’re salty after a sweaty run. Maybe you’ve got barbecue sauce on your face. “Dogs can smell a lot better than we can,” says Dr. Jo Gale, BVetMed CertLAS MRCVS, Senior Manager, Global Science Advocacy at Waltham Petcare Science Institute, “so they find a lot more things interesting to lick than we can.” This despite the fact dogs only have about 1,700 taste buds compared to around 9,000 in humans.

Why do dogs lick your face?

In a poll* of dog owners, IAMS™ found a large majority (75%) believe dogs lick people to offer friendliness. That’s definitely a correct assumption. Licking has been a social behavior among dogs since the days of great-great-great granddaddy wolf. "It’s a standard canine greeting to lick others around the face,” agrees James Serpell, B.S., Ph.D., Professor of Humane Ethics & Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “Junior members of the pack will run around and lick the mouths of more senior members.” Your dog considers you part of their pack, so it’s their way of greeting and welcoming you. Or maybe you still have that barbecue sauce on your face.

Why do dogs lick your wounds?

In ancient Greece, dogs at the shrine of Asclepius were trained to lick patients. In the Middle Ages, Saint Roch was said to have been cured of a plague of sores through his dog’s licks. The French even have a saying, “langue de chien, langue de médecin,” which translates to, “a dog’s tongue, a doctor’s tongue.”
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Don’t cancel your health insurance just yet. While dogs’ saliva does have some possible bactericidal properties against some types of bacteria, it can put you at the risk of exposure to others. Too much licking can also reopen the wound and cause further infection. With modern medicine, you’re much better off hitting the first-aid kit.

And that myth about dogs’ mouths being cleaner than humans’? Not true — both contain over 600 types of bacteria. You’re welcome for that image.

How to handle a dog that licks too much

While an occasional canine kiss is “aww”-inducing, some dogs can overdo it to the point of annoyance. When this happens, the best thing to do is “completely ignore it and give no attention,” suggests Dr. Jo Gale. “When they stop, provide them with attention.” Over time your dog will learn to scale back on the smooches.

*Surveyed U.S. dog owners, age 18+ 

Sample Size: n=201 

Fielded May 8-10, 2020