Every dog is wonderful and perfect in their own special way, but every dog is also a unique being with a distinct personality and set of preferences—just like humans. As any dog lover knows, one of the great puppy divides is the line on kisses: some dogs are outright obsessed with them and will put their tongues on the face of any human who gets within licking distance, while others turn their noses up (literally) even as you beg for some slobbery affection. So why do some dogs love kisses and others seem to almost hate them? We investigated the reasons behind the great puppy kissing divide.
Why do dogs lick?
Let's start with the basics: why do dogs lick to begin with? A dog's relationship with licking begins right away, basically the moment he's born.
According to Animal Planet's dog expert Victoria Stilwell, mother dogs lick their puppies from birth to communicate with them, stimulate them to start breathing, and to clean and groom them. Kisses (okay, licking) are literally vital to a newborn puppy's survival, so the behavior has deep roots for them.
Even later in life, licking serves a lot of purposes for dogs. It's a way they can communicate (both with each other and with their people) and it's a way for them to gather information, just like sniffing.
Why do dogs lick each other?
According to Stilwell, licking is, like so many things, a behavior that's linked to pack hierarchy.
"It's also sort of a submissive gesture — the more subordinate members of a pack will lick the more dominant members and that's important in maintaining pack harmony," she writes.
Licking is also a way that dogs can increase the bond between themselves and other members of the pack and a way to welcome other dogs back into the pack after an absence.
Why do dogs lick humans?
Dogs lick humans for a variety of reasons. For one, human skin has a naturally salty taste, which dogs tend to love.
"It seems gross to us, but our sweaty, salty skin can be intriguing to dogs, who tend to explore the world with their mouths and are comforted by the scent of their caring owners," the experts at the AKC say. "It's the same reason they often steal our socks and underwear."
Licking can also just be a matter of habit—they've been licking the things they live with since they were puppies, so they keep licking the things they live with, which are now humans.
In some cases, it's even a learned behavior—as in, a dog kiss-loving owner has trained the pup to shower humans with kisses.
According to Stilwell, the common thread uniting all of these reasons is the same though: "Mostly, with domestic dogs, it's a sign of affection," she writes.
Dana Ebbecke, animal behavior counselor at the ASPCA Adoption Center, agrees—especially if the kisses are the long, wet variety.
"The meaning of a dog lick can depend on how the licks are offered to their people," she told The Dodo. "Long, slurpy kisses that are accompanied by a soft, wiggly body are usually very affectionate gestures."
Why do some dogs LOVE kisses?
If your dog has learned that kisses = attention and a happy human, then he is probably going to keep showing his love in the most slobbery of ways possible. The truth is, you're always training your dog, whether you realize it or not. A lot of what dogs do, they do to get our attention and any behavior that earns them that coveted attention is one they'll rely on more and more. So, whether kisses make you stop looking at your phone and giggle with joy or make you stop looking at your phone to yell "Stop!" your dog has learned that putting his tongue on your face gets you to look away from the evil rectangle in your hand and look at his adorable mug instead.
Why the driving need for attention? It's because dogs are descendants of wolves, which means they inherited their ancestors' pack mentality. But, not only are dogs just naturally inclined to be social animals, we've actually bred them to be even more social than wolves. This means that social interaction and companionship are incredibly high on a dog's list of life priorities and most will do just about anything to satisfy that need—including obsessive French kissing.
Attention-seeking isn't the only driving force behind obsessive kissing though. Animal Planet has also written the licking promotes the release of endorphins, which floods your dog with feelings of pleasure and comfort. Studies have shown that dogs who are frequently kissed by their owners have higher levels of oxytocin (the "love" hormone) than other dogs, even if those dogs also get lots of attention from their owners.
Finally, you can look to how dogs use licking to communicate with each other to help explain your pup's obsession with kissing you. In packs, dogs lick to groom each other—but only with dogs with whom they share a really solid bond. Licking is also usually a sign of submission and respect. So, kisses could be your dog's way of saying, "We are super close and I respect and love you so much," which is actually just the sweetest.
Why are some dogs obsessed with kissing on the mouth?
There's a subset of kissing-obsessed dogs who have a strong oral fixation—as in they are fixated on getting their tongue into your oral cavity. If your dog is obsessed with licking your lips raw with kisses, the behavior could trace back to his earliest puppy days.
As Stilwell notes, both wild and domestic dogs lick around their mother's mouth as newborns. Many puppies retain that instinct and some older dogs definitely seem to as well.
Is excessive licking a problem?
In general, loads of kisses are only a problem if you (or the other humans in your dog's life) don't like it. However, some dog experts believe that excessive licking could be one manifestation of stereotypy, which is defined as, "a repetitive, constant, behavior that appears to serve no obvious purpose." More commonly, the term is applied to behaviors like pacing and tail-chasing. If your dog kisses you more than you'd like, the best way to train the behavior out of him is to ignore the kisses entirely. When he goes in for a lick, stand up and walk away and act like there isn't a dog in the room at all. Eventually, your dog will learn that kissing makes you ignore him and he'll probably stop kissing (or at least stop kissing as much). If that doesn't curb the behavior, you can always talk to your vet about stereotypy and get their opinion about your dog's excessive kissing.
Why are some dogs meh about kisses?
Kissing isn't an innate behavior for dogs. Even though they do naturally lick to groom and show affection, they don't naturally have the same concept of kissing as humans do.
Some dogs, particularly dogs who weren't socialized well or suffered traumas early in life, don't develop positive associations with kissing. They might even react with fear and growling if a human leans in to give them a smooch. It's not a sign that they hate the human in question, but, for a dog who isn't accustomed to kisses, the basic behavior (another, probably bigger thing coming at it mouth-first) may feel like a threat.