Whether they are welcome to or not, many dogs love to lick faces. The motivators behind why dogs lick faces is often just as it seems- an expression of affection. But if that explanation seems too simple, it is. Training with positive reinforcement, ancestry, scent, and a desire to communicate needs are all factors at play here.
Positive reinforcement associated with a dog licking the face is the most common explanation. Many owners encourage their dogs to “give them a kiss”, and are cuddled and praised when they do so. Hence, the dog associates licking faces with a good behavior that earns them affection and favor. This is not troublesome unless your dog licks the faces of people who did not ask for a kiss; acquaintances and other family members will inevitably feel that a dog going in for a sloppy kiss on the lips, uninvited, is a sign of poor training and bad manners. If you wish to control this impulse, ignore and duck away from the dog if they try to kiss you without being asked. Wait a bit, and then command. That kiss should be affirmed with praise.
A canine’s never-ending desire for food is also a reason why dogs lick faces. Pay attention, and it could be that your dog prefers to licks your face when you have recently eaten.This is to ascertain what you have been eating, see if there’s any particles left on your face, and maybe smell your breath to investigate the food further. If a dog licks your face in search of your food, they don’t stop if they don’t find any leftovers, because the salt content of our skin can be tasty to them anyway.
Speaking of food-seeking behaviors, puppies will sometimes lick their mother’s lips and mouths to stimulate regurgitation for feeding. This means that there is a chance your dog licks your face because they are hungry. It’s not that they are honestly expecting you to regurgitate food into their mouths- though while it is disgusting to us, the dog probably wouldn’t pass it up- but a behavior that their kind has been performing for centuries.
Yes, face-licking is an ancestral canine behavior not strictly relegated to puppies. Ancient wolves and dogs through the ages would lick the face of the pack leader, partner, or any member of the pack it is subservient to, as a sign that the dog is ceding its’ own power. When your dog licks faces, it can be a signal that he is accepting you as his leader, and wants to remain faithfully in your pack.
Of course, dogs lick faces because they love you. Affection, and a way to be very close to you, is something that every dog needs. It is not necessary to allow a dog to lick your face, but love and attention are an aspect of pet ownership that should never be ignored. When responding to a dog who licks faces because they want affection, it’s a good idea to reciprocate with a big hug, which serves the dog’s needs for love while also positioning your face alongside theirs, so the face-licking ceases (unless your dog has a very long tongue!). Dog emotions are not as complex as ours, and it is more difficult for them to accept or reason out why we aren’t returning affection. Think of any rejection you suffered from a loved one as a small child- you probably could not explain it- it just hurt. This is not to say you must always, always return advances for affection from a dog. It is important to withhold praise when a dog is misbehaving, or performing behaviors you have been training them out of. Be judicious.
The prime example of a dog that requires corrective attention is the Anxiety Licker. Some owners find that their dogs not only want to lick them, but are absolutely obsessed with doing so. Unhealthy amounts of anxiety and boredom are sometimes why dogs lick faces. You may find that when they cannot lick your face, they immediately revert to licking anything else- your hands and arms, your feet, their own paws, and so on. The most obvious solution is extra physical activity. Dogs who exert enough energy and enjoy enough physical stimulus manifest fewer boredom issues and anxiety behaviors than other dogs. Try adding an extra walk to their regimen, or take them to the store to choose a new toy that will keep them busier. One underrated solution, not only for obsessive face-licking, but for most forms of canine anxiety, is massage. This is not only very relaxing for the dog, but allows you to be more aware of your dog’s tension at varying times. Start slowly with the largest muscle groups. Dog massage is not only anxiety-relieving, but a great companion habit for more rigorous exercise. It may even help prevent arthritis down the road.
Knowing why dogs lick faces is one thing, but should they? Despite a long history of urban legends that say otherwise, there’s plenty of bacteria in a dog’s mouth, much like our won human mouths. The bacteria isn’t inherently dangerous, since a lot of bacteria is species specific, but consider the different objects and areas where your dog’s tongue has been. A lot of that bacteria can affect you. If you have a dog that can’t help but lick faces, stick to a few good rules of thumb. First, train the dog to keep it brief. If they are allowed to lick your face, a few swipes should suffice. Second, do not let the dog put their tongue too near, or inside, your mouth. This is simply unsanitary, and allows your dog comfortable, invasive access to a master that it should not have. Third, train your dog to wait for an invitation to give kisses. This will prevent it from becoming a habitual boredom behavior. Lastly, allow and encourage affection at appropriate (relaxed) times. Acknowledging your dog’s emotional need for your love is just as important as proper training.