I’ve owned five dogs of various breeds, shapes and sizes; they all had their own unique temperaments and personalities, but one thing that they all had in common was a puzzling penchant for licking my hand. When dogs lick our faces, we are told that this is a sign of love and affection. Is it then the same meaning when they lick our hands, or does science point to another reason?
What does it mean when a dog licks your hand? There are multiple reasons why a dog might lick your hand constantly including instinctive pack behavior, showing submission to the owner, as a memory of their puppyhood, to groom you, or be a soothing action if the dog is anxious.
That’s the short answer to the question, but it is a little more complex than that. If you continue to read on you can find out all the various reasons why a dog licks your hand, what it means, is it safe, can you get sick, and when you should be concerned it’s happening constantly.
Why do dogs like to lick your hands?
1. Instinctive pack behavior
Of the many reasons why a dog might lick your hand, most of them tie into this idea that your dog sees you as part of the pack.With dogs being part of the wolf family, their instinctual pack behavior manifests in their relationships with their owners.
Typically, all packs have an “alpha” who is in charge of all the other wolves. In order to show their submission to the alpha, the other members of the pack lick them.
Subsequently, as our dogs’ caregivers and protectors, it makes sense that they would view us as their alpha and try to demonstrate their obedience and submission to us.
2. It reminds them of when they were a puppy
As a puppy, your dog would have been frequently licked by their mother to groom and nurture them – a behavior they would then repeat to the other members of their litter.
Dogs are intelligent creatures and, like us, they enjoy reminiscing about the good times. By licking your hand, they are repeating the behaviour they did in their early days.
This means that for your dog, licking your hand is a trip down memory lane as it brings up the feelings of safety and security they got from being licked/licking their siblings as a young puppy.
3. They’re trying to groom you
It also brings us back to the idea of your dog seeing you as one of the pack. When dogs are close to one another or are too young to know how to groom themselves, other members of the pack will groom them.
It’s a bonding experience for the dogs and, if a mother is grooming her puppy, it is also a sign of nurturing and protection. It could be, then, that rather than the dog submitting to you and seeing you as the leader, they see themselves as the leader/parent and are licking your hand in an attempt to groom you.
Either way, it is clear that they have a lot of love for you and see you as a very big dog.
4. They’re trying to greet you
Another time that a dog licks your hand, it could mean that they are using it as a means to greet you. Anybody with any experience of dogs know that the best way to approach a new pooch is to stretch out your hand to them.
The senses of smell and taste are vital for a dog, so they would sniff your hand and assess your scent to see if you are trustworthy.
If you past that test, they will give your hand a little lick – and from there you know that they like you.
Consider it as equivalent to someone accepting your offer of a handshake.
Furthermore, if you’re a dog owner, you’ve probably experienced the following scenario: you come home after a long day at work or school; as soon as you step through the door, your dog will pretty much knock you over, covering every inch of your hands and body with licks.
It’s the equivalent of hugging a family member you haven’t seen for a while. For your dog, licking your hand after a bit of distance is just their way of saying: “Hello! I’ve missed you!”.
5. It is indicative of an underlying issue
Not all dogs are the same, however.
As I mentioned before, all dogs have unique temperaments and personality traits, so whilst some dogs may only lick your hands occasionally, others may do so to the point of excess.
If your dog licks your hand obsessively, you should contextualise that with the dogs’ character. If, for example, your dog is a rescue and has experienced poor treatment in the past, the licking could be a sign of separation anxiety or an attempt to self-soothe.
Handy Hint: If you believe your Frenchie could be exhibiting the symptoms of separation anxiety, then I recommend you read this guide to how you can help to solve problems separation anxiety in Frenchies.
It could be that your dog is unwell, has an anxious disposition or is in a situation or environment they find uncomfortable.
Any repetitive behaviour patterns in your dog should be investigated by a trainer or vet, but this is especially important if your dog licks your hand incessantly – chances are, it is a manifestation of an underlying problem.
What is it about hands that dogs like to lick?
So those are the top reasons of what it means when a dog licks your hand, but why do dogs go for hands specifically?
The first reason links back to what I said about dogs’ heightened senses. By simply licking your hand, your dog can tell where you’ve been, who’ve you’ve interacted with and what food you had for lunch.
Because dogs rely so much on their sense of taste, they lick your hands so they can find out what you’ve been up to – for dogs, the different tastes mean that your hands tell a story.
The second reason is quite simply because your hand tastes good – it is likely your dog just enjoys lapping up the natural salts on your hand. If you’ve eaten some nice food or are handing them out treats, they will of course also lick your hands in order to taste the remnants.
When do dogs tend to lick your hands the most?
From my own experience there are certain times when hand licking happens the most, and all of these can be related back to the 5 meanings I’ve already highlighted.
- Dog licking stranger’s hands: means a greeting and testing for trustworthiness.
- Dog licking children’s hands: meaning pack behaviour and grooming.
- Dog licking hands when I pet him: meaning pack behaviour and grooming.
- Dog licking hands when yelled at: meaning submission and you as the pack leader.
- Dog licking hands when I cry: meaning pack behaviour and grooming.
- Dog licking hands when I reach out: meaning pack behaviour and grooming.
How to stop a dog licking your hands
If you find your dog’s hand licking habit problematic, the most effective, long-term solution is to train them to not do it.
If you end up stroking them or giving them a treat after they have licked your hands, then you are giving them a positive reinforcement message. If a dog feels rewarded for a pattern of behavior, they will continue to do it.
Therefore, the best way on how to stop your dog licking your hand is to not give them any positive reinforcement or encouragement.
You could give no reaction to them licking your hand and remove the element of reward for them or, if the licking is becoming a real problem, actively deter them with a stern and authoritative “no” and remove your hand.
However, as with any dog training, changes to their behavior will take time. If you’re looking for a quick-fix, you could always occupy them with a chew toy (view chew toy recommendations) or a walk – giving them something to focus on apart from your hand.
Another quick-fix option is bitter spray. This spray is dog-safe but is designed to taste disgusting to your pup (view the best spray on Amazon)
If the irresistible salts on your hand are replaced with an unpleasant bitterness, your dog will quickly learn to avoid your hands and be dissuaded from licking them constantly.
Can you get sick from a dog licking your hands?
Can you get sick from a dog licking you? Is it safe for a dog to lick your hands constantly? Should you be worried about your children’s hands being licked?
It’s an understandable concern, and although it is commonly thought that dog saliva has healing qualities and is in fact cleaner than human saliva, this has been proven to be false.
With dogs being known to lick themselves clean of dirt, eating their own feces (and even eating poop) and drinking out of the toilet, it is no surprise that their mouth carries a number of germs like e-coli, the parasite giardia and salmonella.
However, for most people, the number of germs in a dog’s mouth aren’t enough to cause any notable damage or illness.
They can, by contrast, develop into something serious for somebody with a compromised immune system due to either a medical issue or being of a vulnerable age (a baby or elderly).
People with a weak immune system should steer clear of dogs where possible.
However, all people should definitely wash their hands after being licked… by doing so you can head-off any risk of infection or illness.
I hope this has given you some valuable insight into what it means when a dog licks your hand constantly. When researching this content, I stumbled across some other things that people ask on Google which are very closely related.
You might also find these answers interesting…
Why does my dog lick my wounds?
Many animals will lick their own wounds as part of the healing process.
However, you should not encourage this as it runs the risk of introducing infections to your wounds. Do not let your dog lick your wounds!
Why does my dog lick my clothes?
Your clothes can be a magnet to your dog. They will smell of you and will have picked up lots of very interesting scents during your day to day life.
It’s no wonder they want to lick and sniff them, particularly around the crotch area!
Why is my dog licking the air?
Licking the air can be a sign of hunger, a behavioural problem, or possibly even a medical problem.
Having spoken to a vet I know, she said that dogs that lick air a lot could have a liver disease or some form of gastrointestinal problems. It could also mean that they are bored.
If you see your dog licking air constantly, please consult with your vet.
Having a health and loving relationship with your dog is imperative. It’s leads to happy dogs and happy you! Most dogs want to give love and show affection, with hand-licking being one of just many ways in which they do this.
However, a dog licking your hand constantly can become problematic with the meaning sometimes pointing to a bigger issue.