An Instinctive Behavior
It may sound a bit odd, but licking behaviors are instinctive meaning that dogs don't need to learn to do this behavior because it comes natural to them.
Mother dog communicates with her puppies through licking right after birth. She cleans her pups from the birth fluids and then she will lick her pups to stimulate them to eliminate until they are older and capable of eliminating on their own. Although this may sound repulsive, it's an adaptive behavior considering that it helps keep the den clean which means it won't attract predators.
As the puppies grow and are weaned from mother's milk, they will instinctively lick around the mother's mouth in hopes of her regurgitating. Once again, this may sound repulsive, but it makes sense considering that in the wild, pups need a transition period between consuming mother's milk and eating meat. Also, since it's impractical for mother dog to carry meat from the outside to the den, it's much easier for her to just consume the meal, and then once back to the den, regurgitate for her pups.
As puppies mature, they then use licking behaviors out of instinct. Indeed, you will often see dogs licking other dogs, adult people, toddlers and babies.
Did you know? Dog trainer Victoria Stillwell explains that licking behaviors in dogs directed towards humans is a submissive gesture, and often a sign of affection. She also adds, that licking releases endorphins which gives dogs a feeling of comfort and pleasure which helps relieve stress.
A "Kiss to Dismiss"
A word of caution is needed when it comes to dogs who like to lick faces, in particular the faces of babies, toddlers and children. Not all doggy "kisses" are created equal.
In some cases, certain types of face licking are not the affectionate kisses we interpret but are actually meant to put some distance. The face licking with the dog extending the neck, may therefore be a distance-increasing behavior that may be seen in dogs who are not comfortable and possibly even anxious.
Jennifer Shryock, a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC) who specializes in educating parents and creator of the "Dogs and Storks" program, calls this type of kiss, a “Kiss to Dismiss,” and describes it as a way for dogs to get someone who's making them uncomfortable (or is pestering them) to go away. Patricia McConnell describes it as "reminiscent of a behavior I’ve called “aggressively obsequious."
It is possible that some dogs may lick as an alternate, displacement behavior to biting. These dogs may have learned that nipping was not acceptable behavior and therefore they have replaced it with excessive licking. Some professionals refer to this form of licking as a "sublimated bite," in other words, a bite that is so strongly inhibited it morphs into licking with no tooth contact.
Sometimes dogs resort to licking as a way to get a human or other dog to move away or relinquish something. A dog may therefore lick the face of a toddler if he wants the toy the toddler has or he wants to lay down on the pillow the toddler is laying down on.
Of course, not all dogs are prone to having face licking under the form of manipulative behaviors in their repertoire of tricks, but it's something perhaps worthy of pointing out.
A dog may therefore lick in the solicitation of resources just as puppies licked the corner'rs of their mother's mouths as a precursor to feeding, points out veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly.
"Please remember that vigorous licking can indicate worry. Face to face (and ear-pulling) interactions between dogs and babies should be avoided, especially if the dog is lying/sitting still and didn't initiate the contact."Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services, LLC
A Matter of Reinforcement
Dogs tend to repeat behaviors that generate some type of reinforcement, which strengthens their behavior allowing it to persist. What type of reinforcement may dogs gain from licking a baby's' or toddlers' face?
As already mentioned, babies and toddlers are messy eaters. They often have slimy food remnants often around their mouths or some trace of sugar on their lips from eating sweets. Dogs find licking these remnants irresistible and these findings maintain the face-licking behavior. On top of this, dogs are attracted to licking faces and human skin in general because of the presence of salt.
Behaviors in dogs though aren't always reinforced by food or other tasty things. Some dogs find face licking as a good way to get attention.
If every time your dog licks your baby, you look at your dog (who perhaps feels a bit neglected due to the baby getting all the attention) he may soon learn that licking your baby gets you to look at him, talk to him or touch him.
When a dog feels neglected, any form of attention can be perceived as reinforcing. Even attention of the negative type. So giving your dog a stern look, scolding him or pushing him away, may be ultimately reinforcing the face-licking behavior.
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs licking the face of babies, toddlers or children may do so for various reasons.
On top of being a potentially annoying behavior, especially when excessive, and possibly, indicative of underlying anxiety, a dog licking the face of a baby or toddler is unhygienic. It is a known fact that dog mouths contain lots of bacteria. On top of this, you don't know what your dog licked or ate just prior to licking your baby's face (his private areas, rabbit droppings, raw meat).
So now that you know why face licking can be potentially problematic, you may be wondering about what you can do to curb this behavior. Here are a few tips.
- Training a replacement behavior for the licking may be helpful. Train your dog to target your hands. This simple exercise teaches your dog that making contact with your hands brings good things. The dog is simply taught to make contact with hands by briefly touching your open hand with his nose. The moment your dog targets the hand, a click or verbal marker announces that he'll get a high-value treat. Practice several times until you get a strong response.
- Next, put the behavior on cue. Say the verbal cue "target" right before you present your open hand. Click and reward. Repeat several times.
- Ask your dog to "target" your hand the moment you notice his intent to go lick your child's face. Always be there ready to intervene.
- Make sure you heavily reward the hand targeting behavior and you'll see this new, replacement behavior more and more, and the face-licking less and less.
- Set your dog for success. Keep your child's facial area as clean as possible. If your child smells like a jar of peanut butter, your dog will be unable to resist licking his face!
- Consider that the more your dog gets to rehearse the face-licking behavior, the more it puts roots. Catch the behavior before it occurs and prevent it from happening.
- Manage the situation. When you cannot actively supervise your dog and child, keep your dog in a separate area so he can't engage in the problematic behavior.
- Play it safe and have a dog behavior consultant assess your dog to determine what may be triggering the excessive face licking.