If I had to name the number one behavior people ask me questions about, it would be LICKING. Some of you don’t mind it at all, and some of you can’t stand it.
The chances are, your dog doesn’t just lick the baby. Oftentimes, dogs have been licking their family members for years, it is not new behavior.
With consistency, training, and management, your dog can learn it is okay to lick you and not the baby. However, it is important to understand that if this behavior has been allowed and rewarded (even unintentionally), a negative reaction from you when they try to lick the baby, may be confusing to your dog at first.
You might be wondering, how did you unintentionally reward licking?
- Let your dog lick you
- Pet them while they lick
- Look at your dog
- Sweet-talk them
- Show any type of positive (and even negative!) attention
It could be rewarding to your dog.
Understanding why your dog is licking is key if you want to reduce it.
Here are the most common reasons why dogs lick people:
- It’s a natural instinct
- To clean food residue off the face or hands
- They’re exploring
- It is often a learned behavior rewarded by a person's attention
- They like the taste of natural or salty skin, or residual scented lotions and body washes
- A sign of affection
- To ask for more space or to be left alone
- To calm a person down
- To reduce stress. Licking releases endorphins in animals' brains. Unfortunately, although not as common, this can create compulsive behaviors - the animal licks for the endorphin rush.
You probably will be able to identify several reasons for your dog’s licking! The main thing to look at is whether your dog is mostly relaxed or seems stressed while licking.
Doggie Kisses v.s. "Leave me alone"
Oftentimes, dogs lick babies, especially mobile babies, because they are asking for space or to be left alone. That type of licking has nothing to do with affection, these are not doggie kisses.
How can you tell the difference?
If your dog’s body is tense, your dog shows other signs of stress, e.g.:
- yawning (when not sleepy)
- panting (when not hot or just exercised)
lip or nose lick
- ears flat back
- wide eyes (the whites are visible)
- moving head away (to the side)
- moving body away, backing up
That means your dog is asking for space. You might see this reaction when your dog is approached by the baby, or the baby reaches in the dog’s direction. These licks are typically frequent and pushy.
If your dog’s body is relaxed, the gaze is soft, the licks are gentle, it is what I like to call “drive-by” licking, your dog is most likely showing affection toward your baby.
To learn more about dog body language, follow Dog Meets Baby on Instagram. We do weekly dog body language quizzes in Instagram stories.
If you determine that your dog ‘asks for space’ by licking, or seems really anxious, especially when you have a newly mobile baby, make sure your baby doesn’t approach your dog. Add a baby gate or a playpen and turn on Baby TV.
Curb your dog’s licking tendencies
If you’d like to ‘curb’ your dog’s licking tendencies, start with ignoring your dog when they lick you. Turn away, or stand up and leave the room. In order for this strategy to work, you need to ignore your dog the moment the dog starts licking you and do it every single time. If you allow licking occasionally because you're too tired, or if you start ignoring them after already 5 minutes of licking, the behavior will continue.
Other helpful strategies
Watch me and my kids implement the strategies listed below. Click here for the video!
✔Praise and reward when your dog is next to your baby and doesn’t lick them.
✔Redirect your dog’s attention to a toy, chew toy, or puzzle toy.
✔Teach your dog to have a toy in their mouth when they approach your baby.
✔Be consistent with boundaries. Your dog will get confused if you let them lick you sometimes and not other times.
✔Teach your dog the Leave It cue. Not sure how? Watch this short training of me teaching 6-month-old Rosie the Leave It cue.
Get ahead of the licking
If you always wait until they are already licking the baby and then redirect, you may inadvertently reinforce the licking behavior with whatever you give them next (a toy, treat or chew.) You will get more licking over time!
If you tell your dog “NO!” or push them away, you’re also ‘rewarding’ licking. Even disapproving attention is still attention, even more so for dogs who live with newborns and are attention deprived because of the baby.
Instead, if you see your dog approach, offer a toy, chew, or puzzle toy BEFORE they have a chance to lick the baby.
Another strategy I like and use a lot, tell your dog to go to their dog bed and reward them for staying there BEFORE they approach the baby. Here is my simple and effective way to train Go to Bed. Waffles is an 8-month-old easily distractable puppy and this method worked like charm.
Be consistent! If your dog has been licking you for years, it may take a while to change this behavior.
❗️Important: If you believe the licking may be a compulsive disorder because you find it very difficult to redirect or discourage, reach out to your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist.
If you don’t feel like training, management is a great option.
Useful management tools:
✔ Exercise pens
✔ Tethering *(only before the baby starts rolling)
Go to Dog Meets Baby Amazon Store to check out baby gates and playpens recommended by me, my clients, and my followers.
Do I have to worry about germs when my dog licks my baby?
I asked Dr. Anjuli S. Gans, MD, a Board Certified Pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, for her professional opinion.
In general, a child’s risk of developing a serious disease from dogs is pretty low. But they can be prone to infections if dogs lick certain parts of their body:
✔ Sensitive Skin Areas. If your dog licks areas where your child has patches of eczema, sensitive skin, or cuts/scrapes, the skin barrier can be affected and lead to worsening irritation or infection.
✔ The Mouth. If your dog licks your child right on the mouth after eating raw foods or licking things outside, they can potentially transmit germs + infection quickly.
Here are some simple things you can do to reduce your child’s risk of illness.
✔ Practice regular handwashing.
✔ If your dog licks skin that has an eczema patch or a cut/scratch, wash the area off with warm water + soap thoroughly.
✔ Make sure your dog is staying healthy with regular veterinary visits and preventive care.
✔ Talk with your pediatrician about your dog! Knowing about all of your babies (dog + human) can help us help you keep your children healthy + safe at home.
Are there any risks if your dog licks your child according to dog professionals?
I asked veterinarians and vet techs/nurses from the USA, Canada, and UK. They all said the same thing. There are potential risks if your dog licks your child. There is no need to panic, and it’s good to be informed. Licking is normal for dogs and you can mitigate (the relatively low!) risks if you know what to do.
Some potential risks:
✔ Most parasites like roundworm, whipworm, or giardia are passed from dog to human via the fecal-oral route. If a dog with an active infection has feces in their mouth from licking their bottom and then licks your baby, there’s a risk of transmission.
✔ Raw-fed dogs pose the most threat to children due to the risk of transmission of salmonella and E.coli.
✔ Ringworm is a contagious fungal infection.
What to do:
✔ Regular vet visits and monthly broad-spectrum heartworm preventatives that treat and control common intestinal parasites.
✔ Keep up on doggy dental exams.
✔ If you have a backyard, train your dog to poop in a designated area and
pick it up as soon as possible.
✔ If your dog eats raw food, clean food bowls and pick up feces promptly.
✔ If your dog has an active infection, keep your dog from licking humans in your family, put shoes on your child when they go into the backyard, and wash hands well after picking up feces.
✔ The Companion Animal Parasite Council recommends fecal testing every 6 months.
✔ If your dog tests positive for intestinal parasites, your veterinarian will prescribe a deworming treatment.
Dr. Lisa Lippman, DMV, the NYC premier veterinarian, recommends additional fecal exams before a baby is born and when a baby starts to crawl to rule out any parasite infection.
Dr. Leslie Mucci, DMV, says that most transmission to people is from dirt/soil infected with eggs. If kids play in the yard or help with gardening, be sure to practice good hand washing.
Always consult your veterinarian to choose the best course of action for your family.
If you don’t want your dog to lick your baby, even if you didn't mind licking before, choose one or two strategies from the list above and stick to them for a week. If they don’t work for you, move on to a different one. In my book, management is equally good, you don’t always have to train!
But if you enjoy training, subscribe to my YouTube Channel where I share short training videos with easy-to-follow steps.