Dog kissing woman's face
We used to call our late Cavalier, Darcy, “the quicker licker-upper.” From puppyhood on, she loved to give kisses — the bigger and wetter, the better. No amount of trying to train her out of it worked, mainly because other people encouraged it.  

“Oh, I don’t mind. She can kiss me all she wants,” they’d say.

Why Dogs Lick

Puppies love to lick us, and it’s easy to see why. Our salty skin probably tastes delicious. Sometimes we wear good-smelling lotions and creams that make it taste even better. We give puppies positive attention when they lick us by laughing. Even if we respond negatively — “Ooh, yuck!” — we’re still talking to them, and that’s all puppies really care about.

And licking is an instinctive behavior. In the wild, canid pups lick their mother’s face and lips to encourage her to regurgitate food for them. Domestic and wild mother dogs lick puppies to groom them. It’s no wonder that our puppies and even adult dogs have a strong desire to lick us since we deliver their food and keep them clean.

But as sweet as puppy kisses are, there are good reasons to discourage the practice. A study in Japan found that bacteria that cause gum disease are transferrable between dogs and humans — going both ways. Your dog may also be kissing you immediately after gulping down garbage, snacking on poop from the cat’s litter box or licking his own behind. The latter is a good — or not-so-good — way to accidentally ingest parasite eggs or larvae hitching a ride in your dog’s saliva.

Less gross but equally important, the habit of licking people is a no-no for would-be therapy dogs, particularly those who visit people with health issues. “Infection control is a primary concern in facilities, especially hospitals, and your animal needs to be protected,” says Pam Becker, a Pet Partners evaluator for the Animal Health Foundation in Lake Forest, California. “Not only do most people prefer an animal not lick them anywhere, but also your animal is at risk should there be body fluids present on skin or clothing.”

How to Lick Licking

If you need to do some training, or retraining, here are some tips to help you, er, lick your dog’s habit.

Turn your face away when your pup tries to lick you. This is a rule that everyone in the family needs to abide by, or your dog won’t learn that the behavior is now forbidden.

The instant your puppy withdraws his tongue, tell him what a good dog he is. If possible, reinforce the praise with a click followed by a treat. Gradually add a cue such as “no kiss” or “no lick.”

Dog trainer Mikkel Becker says you can also teach your dog an alternative behavior, one that’s incompatible with licking you. For instance, ask him to perform a down-stay with his head between his paws or do a spin. Give lots of praise and food rewards when he complies. Any time he tries to lick you, give the alternative cue — “bow your head” or “twirl” or whatever other cue you choose — and reward him when he does the asked-for behavior.

The really hard part isn’t teaching your pet not to lick but discouraging other people from letting your dog kiss them. That’s what ultimately made us unsuccessful in teaching Darcy not to share her slobbery love with the world. But if you’re serious about stopping the licking, you can try saying, “Please don’t let her kiss you; she’s in training.” Another option is to teach your dog to greet people with a spin, wave or shake rather than a kiss.

In the end, though, getting a little sugar from a dog you love isn’t the end of the world. Just be sure to thoroughly wash your hands and mouth afterward — and maybe swish with mouthwash to kill any lingering germs.

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