Pets are incredibly strange. Dogs in particular have a habit of enacting very weird actions repeatedly, which can be distressing as an owner. Some habits are way easier to explain than others, like chasing their tail versus licking your face!
Particularly focusing on your eyes is an especially weird experience though, and one that should be discouraged if possible. There are several reasons why a dog might lick your face, but whatever the explanation, it isn’t good behavior to repeat.
Today we’ll be taking a look at why face-licking might be your dog’s favorite activity, as well as how it can be bad for you – and in some circumstances, even dangerous. We’ll even cover the best ways to train your pup out of this gross practice.
Why Does My Dog Lick My Eyes/Nose/Ears/Face?
Whilst some dogs lick to show they love you, others are demonstrating signs of distress or potential medical conditions, possibly even as a result of behavioral issues or poor training. Let’s run through all of the potential causes…
They Want To Groom You
Even if you’ve clearly positioned yourself as the alpha in this relationship, your dog still considers you a member of its pack, just as you see them as one of the family. Therefore, they might feel responsible for making sure you get a good bath!
In the same way that a pup might follow their owner around the house as they perform daily chores, or cry when you go upstairs to bed without them, licking your face (including the eyes) could be their way of giving you a thorough scrubbing.
Licking is how pooches give themselves a clean, so it stands to reason that they would use this same method on you. Either that or you have some leftover food on your face that you didn’t quite wipe away… and it tastes delicious!
They May Have A Medical Condition
Though there is much research left to do on canine anxiety, studies and experiments are being conducted all of the time. One such paper comes from Colorado State University and investigates the possible reasons for excessive licking.
Whether their target is you, other members of the family or random surfaces, excessive licking could signify that your pooch is exhibiting signs of canine obsessive-compulsive disorder or anxiety.
There are several breeds more likely to experience doggy OCD according to the above study, including the Irish Setter, Boxer, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Weimeraner, Great Dane and Doberman Pinscher.
Other possible causes of excessive licking, particularly on surfaces (known as ELS) could be canine IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), a parasite or other stomach infection, inflammation of the lining, constipation or other gastro-intestinal issues.
Once that issue is treated, the excessive licking should stop or reduce significantly. Therefore, if your pup is prone to licking, you should have them tested for any sickness or disorders before putting it down to anxiety or another possible cause.
They Want To Show Submission
According to veterinarian Nicholas Dodman, in the wild a dog might lick it’s mothers mouth or face to show they are subordinate. Given you are their master when they live in their home, it may well just be an attempt at showing you some respect.
In the same sort of vein, it may also be an attempt to display a signal of calm, showing you they are okay and everything is fine, in an attempt to soothe a situation they believe is escalating because of them. Were you just yelling before the lick? That could be why!
They Are Bored And Want Attention
Much like a little kid (or an adult with no manners), if a dog is bored, lacking stimulation or simply wants to get your attention, they might give you some wet slobbery kisses as a means to an end.
When you can’t think of any other reason why they might be licking – and a visit to the vets has ruled out any possible medical conditions – you can bet that your pooch is just after some butt scritches or any other form of affection.
They Are A Smaller Breed
Strangely enough, the size of your dog may well be contributing to their unwanted (and unpleasantly sticky!) behavior. Breeds on the smaller side have been proven to display undesirable traits more regularly than their larger counterparts.
This can include anything from jumping up at you, chewing furniture, barking repetitively… or licking your face (and other unpleasant locations). That being said, big pups can be just as likely to lick you as any other… it really depends on the dog!
It is worth noting, also, that English Bulldogs in particular are known for repetitive licking of their owner, in particular around the body, mouth and eyes. If you’ve got a bully, it could just be part of their personality.
You Are Crying And Tears Taste Good
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Dogs love the taste of salt, which is why they also enjoy licking our hands, legs and other body parts. If they spot you’re crying and give your face a little lick, they’ll probably keep on licking – it’s a salty treat for them.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Bad For Dogs To Lick Your Eyes?
Well yeah, it can be. It’s bad for a dog to lick your face generally – once or twice won’t hurt, but on a regular basis you’re just asking for trouble. Just a quick lick won’t have caused any problems, so try not to panic. However…
Not only is it a gross behavior to allow, but it could also be potentially dangerous. Letting them lick your face teaches them they can lick any face. You can push them off, but a little kid or a baby can’t, and those sharp teeth and claws hurt!
Plus, there’s also a bunch of bacteria present in their saliva. What did you expect? They also spend a large portion of their days eating poop and licking their own buttholes! Of course there are bugs aplenty all up in their spit.
Though it is rare, it is possible that you could get sick from a dog licking your eye.
For instance, look at this excerpt from a letter Dr Martin Tammegagi (a very famous and incredibly knowledgeable vet) submitted to the Canadian Veterinary Journal in 1989, responding to a cover image that shows a dog licking its owner’s face:
The cover of the September 1989 issue of the Canadian Veterinary Journal is eye-catching and attractive, but depicts a practice that is not exemplary, and should be discouraged.
Mouth-to-face contact, licking, or kissing between humans and pets can result in human illness, and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, its Journal, and President should not condone and glamorize such behavior.
Certainly, such behavior is common and in most instances leads to no harm, but medical literature has documented numerous cases in which serious human infections resulted from nontraumatic exposure to the saliva of pets.”
Dr Tammegagi also makes a point of explaining conditions or factors that put humans at a higher risk of contracting diseases via a dog’s saliva:
- Age extremes – the old and the young
- Congenital absence or abnormal development of one or more components of the immune system
- Cytotoxic drug or prolonged high-dose corticosteroid usage (these drugs are used in the treatment of certain medical conditions such as Crohn’s disease, malignancies, organ transplants, systemic lupus and autoimmune diseases)
- Drug abuse
- General debility (this is a vague and nonspecific term still frequently referred to in medical literature)
- Hepatic disease
- Infections, especially with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) leading to AIDs or AIDs-related complex
- Organ transplant
- Renal disease
He then goes on to say that “individuals affected by these factors should have meticulous hygiene standards when associating with animals and face licking by pets should be strongly avoided.”
Also mentioned is the need for veterinarians to “be especially vigilant in screening, educating and protecting susceptible individuals from pet-associated infections,” though the onus should also be on the owner themselves to put a stop to this behavior.
His letter concludes by suggesting that “good hygiene habits such as washing hands when they get dirty are in most cases simple and obvious,” but “avoiding contact with the mouth and saliva of animals is a fundamental hygiene rule” that we should all follow.
Don’t let the fact that this was published in 1989 fool you – a more recent study from the British Medical Journal’s July 2016 issue once again demonstrates that dog saliva has the potential to be dangerous:
“A 70-year-old woman was brought to the emergency room for seizures and stayed in the intensive care unit for 2 weeks. She had severe infection with multi-organ system dysfunction from Capnocytophaga canimorsus, a bacteria frequently isolated from the mouths of dogs and cats. She had no scratch or bite marks but the patient reported close petting, including licking from her Italian greyhound.”
As demonstrated here, there doesn’t need to be a scratch or punctured skin to pass on an infection – your dog’s tongue just has to land in the wrong place. If you must let your pooch lick you then for god’s sake, avoid the eyes where possible!
Why Does My Dog Lick My Eyes If I’m Crying?
For several reasons! Unfortunately, the most obvious is that dogs really like the taste of salt and will therefore remember that your tears taste salty if they have licked them before, or find this out suddenly and make a mental note for next time.
However, it is a well-known fact that dogs are also very sensitive and can pick up on our human emotions very easily. They may recognize you are crying because you are upset and therefore might be trying to soothe you the only way they know how.
How Do I Stop My Dog From Licking My Eyes?
Trying to stop a dog’s behavior in its tracks – especially a repetitive one – can be very difficult, particularly if it is a result of anxiety that you cannot pinpoint the source of. How can you eradicate anxiousness without knowing where it’s coming from?!
Tip #1 – Ignorance
It is bliss, after all!
As difficult as it may be, if your dog tries to lick you anywhere, the easiest thing you can do is leave. Get up and go into a different room, change seats or simply refuse to provide eye contact. No attention from you means they’ll probably stop quickly.
Try and keep up with this if you can. One lick quickly leads to another, so stand your ground and be firm. Don’t even talk to them or pet them whilst you’re ignoring – outright blanking is the only way to succeed here.
Tip #2 – Distraction
When outright ignoring doesn’t work, try the next best thing: distract them! It is particularly helpful if you can put something in their mouth at this point, like a toy or a bone, pretty much anything you can think of.
Although you shouldn’t give them a Kong filled with treats if they have been repetitively licking (as this may reinforce the behavior accidentally) offering up something else to lick, chew and chomp on is a great way to stop licking in its tracks.
Tip #3 – Change Of Scenery
It’s possible your dog is bored and seeking stimulation, hence the licking! Unless you’ve literally just got back from one, head out for a nice long walk or play session down at the park. Once fatigued, they’ll be too sleepy to lick you or anything else.
This method is particularly effective for pups whose licking is compulsive. Simply trying to stop the licking will only keep their focus on it, whilst heading outside to do something else works as a complete distraction.
Tip #4 – Positive Reinforcement
Though you might be tempted to scold and shout until the licking stops, it’s been proven that dogs, like little kids, hardly ever respond well to negative reinforcement. Screaming at them to“Quit licking!” is not going to help anybody, especially you!
Instead, focus on rewarding your pup for positive behavior, like not slobbering all over your face. Practice sitting, lying down, spinning and all of the other useful tricks, being sure to reward with a tasty (dog-friendly) treat immediately after the good behavior.
This will teach them that listening to your commands gets them a reward. Therefore, if they are licking you and you move their head away, say “stop” and leave the situation, you should only give the treat if they don’t then resume licking!
Tip #5 Take a Bath/Change Your Smell
Maybe you’re especially sweaty after a heavy workout session or perhaps you’ve noticed that your dog only licks you when you’re wearing a certain perfume or after using a specific lotion?
Either way, if you think smell or taste has something to do with their excessive licking, try hopping in the shower, taking a nice long bubble bath or switching up your favorite scents for something new, to see if that helps.
You may still be worrying: when should I worry about my dog licking me? Well, unless they are constantly aiming for your eyes or it is a repetitive behavior being carried out all day every day, chances are one of the simple fixes above will work.
If things seem obsessive, are causing you, a family member or your dog themselves distress, or you believe there’s something sinister causing them to lick, it is important to get to the vets ASAP to have them checked out.
Sure, maybe it’s nothing and you wasted a trip, but is ensuring that the life of your canine companion is as comfortable and happy as it could possibly be really ever a waste of time?