Dog Licking: Are Canine Kisses a Good Thing?

Kissing is high on many people’s list on New Year’s and for some dogs it ranks high among their every day priorities. I recently had an adorable puppy stay with me for a few days. Each morning as I carried her downstairs to go potty she tried with all of her puppy might to wash my face with kisses. It was hard to resist her, but I kept my face away so that our journey outside was kiss free. While I am a fan of dog kisses (within reason of course!), I hadn’t discussed the matter with her family and therefore didn’t want to encourage a behavior they might not like. And from what I had seen so far, she was ready to make a fortune running a kissing booth.

Licking is a natural behavior which begins in puppyhood. Puppies lick their litter mates as a social bonding function as well as for grooming. They also lick their mother as a way of soliciting feedings. In turn, mother dogs spend quite a bit of time licking their pups starting from the moment they are born as a way of stimulating them and keeping them clean of urine and feces. Adult dogs may also lick each other during social interactions as a way of communicating an effort at appeasement.

It should come as no surprise that dogs may transfer this (along with many other) very normal and natural dog behaviors to their interactions with their human family. In some cases even more so than with other dogs if the behavior is reinforced with giggles and hugs and if the person’s skin is salty or if they are wearing potentially tasty creams or lotions.

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If you don’t mind or are even a fan of dog kisses, just be sure not to inadvertently reinforce this behavior such that it becomes excessive. The definition of excessive is somewhat subjective, but in general, if it becomes a behavior that in any way limits your enjoyment of time spent with your dog or vice versa then it probably should be curbed. This may be more likely to happen with a very small dog such as a Chihuahua or a Yorkshire Terrier as opposed to a very large dog like a Newfoundland or Great Dane. It could simply be that loads of small dog kisses aren’t seen as quite as messy as those of a very large dog. But, regardless of the reason, consider that if your dog learns to kiss as a default behavior when greeting people, there may be many who will avoid your dog.

So, if you notice your dog is becoming a kissing fanatic, try to ignore the behavior for a bit and only allow kisses when asked for. If you keep your dog on a leash, you can give them a gentle time out by holding the leash at arms length. Reinitiate social contact after a moment or two and keep your dog occupied doing something else. This is where teaching your dog a repertoire of behaviors such as sit, down, and hand targeting comes in especially handy. Teaching your dog to respond reliably to your requests, and to get rewarded for doing so, is also a wonderful way to help your dog build confidence in itself and in it’s relationship with you. After all, a successful student should feel good about him or herself and the teacher. And since from my experience, less confident dogs are also more likely to lick people excessively, any confidence building exercises are a must!

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If your dog has been permitted to kiss excitedly for a long time, consider that well established habits take time to change. So, be calm and patient. Any sort of reprimands for this social behavior are likely to result in a dog who licks more (as a way of appeasing you) and who loses trust in it’s human family.

As for the lovely little pup who I had the pleasure of caring for, when I brought her back to her family we discussed the dog licking issue. As it ends up, one family member was all for it and the other thought it to be quite unpleasant. But, I’ll save the topic of coming up with consistent rules for your dog for another day.