Have a dog with a penchant for licking hands? You're not alone! Canines rely heavily on their senses of touch, taste, and smell to navigate the world. While they have fewer taste buds than humans do, their tongues are still an invaluable tool they utilize as much as possible!
Smelly breath notwithstanding, dogs always seem eager to give your face or hand a quick lick! But what does it mean when the occasional lick turns into a more consistent and borderline annoying behavior?
There are a plethora of reasons why your dog might lick your hand.
Canines are more complex than people realize, and a simple act like licking can quickly turn into an unhealthy habit in the right conditions.
Understanding why this behavior occurs at all can give you some insight into what your dog's thinking and whether or not you should be concerned.
Why Do Dogs Lick Your Hands?
From tiny Chihuahuas to enormous Saint Bernards, hand-licking is expected behavior from any dog. Here are some of the most likely reasons why your pup finds your hand so appealing.
They Enjoy the Taste
Believe it or not, your hand is a tasty treat for dogs! It all comes down to natural salts and perspiration. Even a clean hand will have some enticing flavor that your dog wants to lap up.
Interestingly enough, dogs only have about 1,700 taste buds.
For comparison, humans have roughly 9,000. Despite the significantly fewer tastebuds, canines can still taste salty, bitter, and sour flavors. That could explain why they find your hand so delicious!
Related: Can Dogs Taste Spicy Herbs?
Here's something most people don't realize. When your dog goes crazy licking your hand, they're gathering tons of information about your day.
Think about it! After a long day, your hand probably has remnants of everything you did.
Even if you washed your hands thoroughly, there's a good chance that some things are still there. With a simple lick, your dog can tell where you went, who you were with, and even what food you ate!
It's a quick way to understand your day without going into specifics. In most cases, dogs use that experience as a way to live vicariously through you. They've spent all day cooped up at home while you had fun outside.
While they have limitations to where they can go and what they can do, dogs can certainly get a taste of your own experiences through your hands.
A Form of Non-Verbal Communication
Does your dog immediately go to your hands when you come home? They're probably using the behavior as a greeting. Think of it as the equivalent of a human handshake. Your pup is saying "hello!" and greeting you home.
Canines use their tongues to greet others all of the time. Next to scent, the taste is the next best thing. It's why you see so many dogs licking faces or ears.
When it comes to human and canine interaction, hand-licking is like a form of acceptance. For many people, the go-to action when seeing a new dog is to hold the hand out.
Doing so gives the dog a chance to sniff around and decide if they trust you or not. Once they're comfortable, they'll start licking to let you know.
Related: Dog Tail Communication: What does the tail tell you?
In many cases, hand-licking is all about pack instincts.
Modern dogs are very far removed from their wild ancestors. However, many instincts remain. One of the most crucial is the way they view family members.
You're not just a simple companion. To your dog, you're the leader of the pack! Other dogs and human family members are part of the pack, too.
While the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of pack living no longer applies, dogs still treat the social hierarchy the same.
In wild packs, canines go above and beyond to take care of the leader. Beyond hunting, finding food, and providing the best sleeping spot, dogs will lick the alpha. It's their way of showing submission and respect.
You're the alpha in your dog's pack, so licking is their way to show their appreciation.
A Simple Grooming Attempt
This reason goes along with the previous one. In the wild, dogs often lick each other for grooming purposes. Of course, the pack leader gets the top priority.
Even in lush domesticated living, dogs will attempt to groom their loved ones as much as they can. Don't be surprised if that simple hand lick moves up your arm and face!
Dogs don't spend a ton of time with their mothers before being whisked away for adoption. However, that short time has a significant impact on puppies moving forward.
Mothers do a lot to ensure the comfort and survival of their young. Not only do they nurse them to health, but female dogs will constantly lick the pups, too.
Licking is a big part of grooming, but it's not the only reason mothers do it. They'll also lick the body to encourage urination and defecation.
It's pretty gross to think about, but that body licking is crucial. Puppies cannot handle those biological functions alone, so mothers have to make it happen with their tongues.
As you can imagine, the feeling is a significant source of comfort.
Dogs are fully capable of remembering their mothers for a couple of years after separation. But even after that, licking is like taking a trip down memory lane.
They're sharing that moment with you while also recreating the feeling of security they had.
A Show of Love and Affection
Why do dogs lick your hands? It may be a way to shower you in adoration!
We've all heard that a dog likes you when it licks your face. However, that affection extends to your hand, too!
Many believe that licking also serves as a way to show submission.
Dogs will lick the mouth of another canine in an attempt to show respect. That behavior extends to humans, too. It's your dog's way of spreading love!
Some say that the act of licking itself also releases joy-inducing endorphins. It's a mutually beneficial act that centers around affection.
Related: Do Dogs Like & Understand Kisses from a Human?
Here's a not-so-great reason why your dog might lick your hand constantly. Hand-licking tends to start innocently enough. But, it can devolve into something more serious.
Canine compulsive behaviors are a lot more common than most people realize. It starts as a coping mechanism for stress or anxiety.
Before long, dogs have to rely on the act to get any comfort at all. Compulsive actions tend to stem from underlying trauma or separation anxiety.
Every case is different, and the severity of the problem depends on the context behind it.
Take your dog to a vet and behaviorist. They can help you get to the root cause, allowing you to address it and help your pup move on.
Should You Let Your Dog Lick Your Hands?
Whether or not you allow hand-licking is entirely up to you.
Most dog owners don't mind it for the occasional greeting or affection time. However, it can be problematic if it becomes a compulsive behavior. Constant hand-licking can be somewhat annoying to some.
If you're worried about the hygienic side of things, your concerns are valid. After all, dogs have a penchant for eating trash, getting into the toilet, and licking their unmentionable body parts!
The good news is that most of the bacteria in a dog's mouth and gut aren't a huge cause for concern. There are not enough germs to cause disease for most people.
The only exception is those with weak or compromised immune systems. In those cases, it may be a good idea to limit hand-licking.
Babies and young toddlers are particularly susceptible to disease, so we recommend teaching your dog to hold off until your child is a bit older.
Beyond that, letting your dog lick your hand is no big deal. It shouldn't be a huge problem as long as you wash your hands regularly and the behavior doesn't get out of hand.
Dogs use hand-licking in so many different ways. From communicating their love to finding comfort in your presence, it's something that your furry friend adores!
Punishing them too much for the behavior is like pushing away a child asking for a hug. If you don't mind some light slobber, let your dog enjoy the moment!
How to Stop Constant Hand-Licking
There's nothing wrong with wanting to put a stop to excessive hand-licking. While dogs adore the act, it's important to set some boundaries if the behavior is becoming too much.
Maybe your dog is bordering on compulsive behavior or making guests uncomfortable. Whatever the case may be, there's no shame in trying to get your dog to stop.
That said, it's no easy task! Dogs rely so much on this behavior that you're going to have to work hard to put an end to it.
Start by working with a trainer. A behaviorist can help, too, if you're dealing with compulsive disorders. Training the act out of your dog is about positive reinforcements.
Hide your hands as soon as your dog starts licking. After waiting a few moments, you can return to providing your dog with attention.
If they try to lick your hands again, repeat the removal. But if they don't, reward your dog with treats and praise. It'll take some time for your dog to understand the connection.
Be vigilant, and continue to reinforce alternatives to hand-licking.
See this video on how to stop a dog from licking hands
* Avoid Encouragement
Another important thing to remember is that you need to avoid encouragement. In cases where dogs start to lick your hands constantly, they likely learned the behavior through inadvertent encouragement.
For example, you could have paid more attention to your dog when they licked your hands in the past. In doing so, you taught your pup that all it needs to do to grab your attention is start licking.
Avoid doing things like that in the future.
When it comes to stopping behavior like this, it's all or nothing! Keep up with your training and stick to a clear message. Otherwise, you'll just confuse your dog.
In addition to training, try diverting your dog's attention any time they try to lick your hands. Have a toy on hand. We recommend choosing something with a distinct texture.
Toys are a much healthier alternative, so giving them an outlet makes it easier to stop hand-licking.
For the most part, hand-licking is an innocent behavior. It's a form of communication that goes back to wild canines. Dogs use it to greet you, show love, and more.
Occasional licks are no cause for concern, and we encourage you to use the experience as a bonding moment. That said, learn to identify when hand-licking becomes problematic.
Whether your dog is using it as a coping mechanism or they're starting to lick way too much, there are ways to manage it. With some careful training, you can ensure that your dog doesn't go overboard with the licking!