This month’s blog question: “Why does my dog always kiss me?”
Reasons behind dog kisses:
There are many reasons why dogs kiss or lick their owners. Most owners believe this is their dog’s way of showing affection. In some instances this is true. Dogs can learn to mimic their owners’ behaviors. This is why some dogs show their teeth and “smile” when they are happy when typically this is a sign of aggression towards another dog. But “kissing” is a lot easier for dogs to learn and understand than smiling which is why so many dogs will happily kiss, or lick, their owners.
Licking is an instinctual behavior that puppies are exposed to at birth. Mothers lick their puppies for many different reasons. The most commonly thought of reason is for grooming purposes, which is true, but a mother will also lick her puppies in order to mark them with her scent. Because of this, puppies develop a learned behavior of licking from their mother and start to groom/lick one another. Puppies also will lick their mother’s face in order to get her to regurgitate food for them. Also, because puppies don’t have hands they will also lick and mouth many items in order to explore and taste them.
If puppies grew up in the wild, like wolves, the licking behaviors would continue between the pack members. As adults, wolves and feral dogs lick one another for various reasons. Dogs will lick higher-ranking pack members to show that they understand that they are a lower ranking dog. In the wild, dogs hunt together as a pack and it is important that the pack leader survives. For this reason, even if the pack leader isn’t the one to kill an animal the other dogs will offer the prey to them first by licking the pack leader to encourage him to eat. Dogs will also lick their own noses in order to show other dogs that they are not a threat. Since dogs are now domesticated, although your dog maybe licking you to show you that you are in charge more often than not they are licking you for a different reason.
Dogs will lick each other and humans in order to show them that they are excited to see them. When puppies are young and nippy owners often discourage mouthy behaviors. As a result some puppies learn that if I nip at my owner during play they will stop playing with me but if I lick them they continue. As a result dogs will use licking as a replacement of nipping during playtime. Licking can also be a learned, attention seeking behavior. Dogs do everything for attention. If the dog learns that licking their owner gets them love they will continue to lick you in order to have their owner pet them or receive a reward. In the same way certain people love to hug and kiss everyone they know, some dogs will develop habits like this as well. But just how hand washing can become an obsession for humans, licking can become and obsessive-compulsive behavior for dogs. When licking becomes an OCD type behavior it can have negative effects. Dogs who have OCD licking will also not only lick humans obsessively but also inanimate objects and themselves. Some dogs will lick themselves so frequently it will result in hair loss, and even skin infections.
When enough is enough:
Whether your dog’s licking behavior is an obsession or just something that annoys you there are ways to tone it down. Dogs can learn to stop licking or lick a reasonable amount of times through proper training. Realize if your dog’s licking behavior is an OCD behavior and not just a way of communicating, you should contact a professional to discuss additional treatment options. If you stop an OCD behavior without treating the cause, additional anxieties and even worse behaviors could result. But if your dog is just wants to tell you how much he loves you, feel free to follow these techniques to gain more control over the behavior.
As with humans, all dogs learn differently, so I will provide a few different options to correct this behavior. If you enjoy the licking but your dog tends to take it a little too far you can teach them to kiss and stop kissing on command. First, start by teaching them to kiss on command. This is simple. Every time they kiss you say the word “kiss” as they are kissing you and then reward them with petting or a treat. Remember the key here is to say “kiss” as the dog is kissing you for about one to two weeks. Then try testing the behavior. Say “kiss” and if the dog licks you know they understand the command. If not practice for a few more days prior to testing again. Once your dog understands the “kiss” command you can teach them to stop. Ask the dog to “kiss” and praise them when they do. When the dog stops kissing you say a “no kiss” word such as “enough.” For another week or so say “enough” every time the dog stops kissing you. Then one day test it. Ask the dog to kiss. Once you have had enough kisses say “enough.” If the dog stops kissing, praise them and give them more attention. If they do not stop kissing continue to pair the word “enough” with them stopping the behavior for a few more days prior to testing it again.
Some people don’t want their dog to give them kisses at all. This is perfectly ok. There are two different options for teaching your dog not to kiss at all. The first is redirecting the behavior. Redirection is when you give the dog an alternative behavior to perform. I would recommend teaching your dog a touch command for redirection since your dog is already trying to use their mouth to get you attention. To teach “touch” start by placing a treat in between the crook of your thumb and pointer finger. When the dog goes to sniff your hand, click, remove the treat, and provide it to them as a reward. Next, place your hand down without a treat in it. If the dog touches your hand click and give them a treat as a reward. Now place your hand down and as the dog is about to touch your hand say “touch”. If he touches, click and give a treat as a reward. Practice like this, placing your hand down and saying touch as they touch you, followed by a click and treat for a few days. Remember only click and treat if there is no licking with the touch. Once the dog seems to understand the command touch you can start being more animated about the behavior and asking them to touch from further and further away. After they have developed a good understanding that “touch” means to tap their nose to the palm of your hand you can start using it to redirect the kissing. Each time the dog kisses you ask them to “touch” your hand. If they do touch your hand reward them and provide tons of love. Become aware that the whole purpose of this excercise is that you want them to start to touch you for attention instead of lick you. Remember, if you are ever sitting there and your dog comes over and touches your hand all on his own be sure to throw a party and give lots of praise and love so they begin to understand this is what you prefer over licking.
If you don’t want to teach your dog to touch you have a third option, removing the problem from the environment. Dogs do everything for attention, and most dogs don’t care if it is positive or negative attention. Once you find yourself telling your dog “no” over and over again and realize they don’t care, you are providing them negative attention. They are just happy they are getting attention, so instead remove the problem from the environment. Every time the dog kisses you get up and leave the room for thirty seconds to a minute. This shows the dog that licking results in them losing what they wanted, you. If you are consistent (and everyone around your dog is also consistent) this will result in stopping the behavior. But every time you give in and tolerate the licking, even for a minute your dog learns that one out of every 7-20 times I get to kiss so I’m just going to keep trying.
Also realize that some dogs will exhibit a bad behavior (in this example kissing) in order to be instructed to perform a good behavior and receive a reward. This means the dog isn’t actually stopping the behavior of kissing. If you trained your dog using the word “enough” you are going to allow them to kiss you a few times. When you say “enough” you expect the behavior to stop. As a result you need to follow through on enforcing the command. When you tell the dog “enough” if they stop the behavior praise them and give them a little more love. Once you stop rewarding them, if they immediately start licking you again get up and leave the room.
The same situation would go for touch. Ideally we are trying to teach the dog to “touch” instead of lick but until the dog understands that “touch” will get them attention you will need to use it to redirect the licking. When the dog licks you will ask for a “touch”. If they respond with a touch you will then give them the love they wanted. If they lick again immediately after you are done loving them, get up and leave the room for 30-60 seconds. On the other hand, if the dog touches you after you stop giving them love without licking first you should give them more love. In this way we reinforce that “touch” results in attention, not kissing.
So whether or not you like your dog kissing you in small quantities or if you don’t want any kisses at all you can get this behavior under control with a few weeks of consistent training. As a result, you and your dog will be able to communicate properly with one another and love each other more in the end.