Why does my dog lick my face when I cry?

Dogs lick their owners’ faces for a variety of reasons, but it often stems from their natural instincts and desire to comfort us. When we’re upset and crying, our dogs may lick our faces in an effort to provide soothing, positive stimulation. Understanding some of the science behind why dogs lick and recognizing the signs of stress in our pets can help us translate what this behavior means and how best to react.

Quick Answers

Here are some quick answers to common questions about why dogs lick faces:

  • It’s instinctual – Their mothers licked them as puppies to groom them and show affection
  • To gather information – Licking allows dogs to better understand our emotional state through taste and scent
  • To comfort us – The physical sensation releases feel-good chemicals in our brains
  • To communicate – It’s a way to convey affection, submission, anxiety, or other emotions
  • Attention-seeking – Licking stimulates a response from us, which they crave

It’s Instinctual

When puppies are born, their mothers immediately begin licking them. This serves several purposes:

  • Stimulating breathing and improving circulation
  • Cleaning dirt, fluid and placental remnants from their coat
  • Providing warmth and dryness to prevent chilling
  • Promoting urination and defecation to clear their systems

This licking by mom also helps puppies bond with her. The stimulation releases feel-good hormones oxytocin and dopamine in their brains. As they grow, this licking continues, offering comfort and reassurance when the puppies are stressed or fearful.

This early maternal licking imprints on young dogs that licking is soothing and helps form social bonds. The instinct remains with them into adulthood.

Licking as Social Communication

Licking serves an important social function for canines. When dogs meet, they’ll often lick each others’ mouths and faces as a friendly greeting. This exchange helps relay their identity, status, mood and intentions.

Dogs will also lick the faces of dominant pack members when greeting them. This deference behavior conveys respect and submission. When pet dogs lick our faces, they’re communicating affection and acknowledging our higher social status in their human pack.

Gathering Information Through Taste and Smell

A dog’s sense of smell is their primary way of experiencing the world around them. Their sense of taste is also extremely acute, allowing them to detect microscopic amounts of chemicals. By licking our faces, dogs can better detect:

  • Pheromones in sweat that relay our mood
  • Tears, which contain salt and other minerals
  • Skin oils that indicate our health and diet

This helps them gain loads of social information about us. It enables them to empathize and respond appropriately to our emotional state.

The Vomeronasal Organ

Dogs have an additional olfactory sense we lack called the vomeronasal organ. Also known as Jacobson’s organ, it’s located above the roof of their mouth. When dogs lick, scent chemicals bind to receptors there, providing loads of information about us.

These chemical signals are sent to the limbic system in the dog’s brain, stimulating behavioral and emotional responses. So licking provides dogs with a very intimate understanding of our inner world.

To Comfort Us

When we’re upset, dogs can sense our emotional distress through body language, tone of voice, scent and more. Licking releases feel-good endorphins in our brains, helping to calm and soothe us when we’re sad or crying. This is incredibly comforting for people.

Thisreaction is brought on by the hypothalamus in the dog’s brain, which regulates instincts and mood. When they sense our stress, it compels them to nurture and care for us.

By licking away our tears, dogs may be trying to stop our display of distress and make us feel better. It’s why dogs are such empathetic comforters for people suffering anxiety, grief and other issues.

Releases Oxytocin

Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the brain that promotes bonding, trust, relaxation, and feelings of love. Petting and physical contact with dogs causes oxytocin to be released in their brains as well as ours.

When a dog licks our face, the sensation puts this feel-good hormone into overdrive for both dog and human. This helps reinforce a mutually beneficial bonding behavior.

To Show Affection

Dogs express fondness for their owners in multifaceted ways. As pack animals, canines communicate within their family group by grooming and licking each other. They exhibit the same behaviors with us that they would their canine companions.

Frequently licking their owners is a clear sign that the dog accepts us as part of their pack. It’s a gesture of pure love and devotion just like a parent feels compelled to hug their child.

A Relaxing Stimulation

The physical sensation of licking triggers the release of feel-good chemicals in our brains. The hormones oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins and serotonin flood our system when we’re licked. This provides a soothing, relaxing effect.

Being licked by a loved one when you’re already upset can intensify these positive emotions. The combined effect is an amplified sense of comfort, bonding and well-being.

Attention-Seeking Behavior

Dogs inherently crave attention from their owners. Licking elicits a definite response from us, either positive or negative. Your dog may have learned that licking your face provokes you to interact with it.

Dogs do what works to get our attention. Even negative reinforcement like pushing your dog away still satisfies their desire for a response. For owners who constantly interact with the licking dog, this rewards and reinforces the behavior.

Signs Your Dog is Attention-Seeking

Excessive licking can be a red flag for anxiety issues stemming from lack of stimulation. Other signs your dog may be attention-seeking or insecure include:

  • Approaching you constantly for petting and cuddling
  • Following you from room to room
  • Whining, barking or pawing you for attention
  • Misbehaving, destructive chewing, or house soiling

Make sure your dog gets adequate physical activity, mental stimulation, affection and training daily to discourage needy behavior.

Means of Communication

Although humans communicate verbally, dogs rely heavily on body language and physical displays to express themselves. For canines, licking is a primary calming signal and a means of communication with other dogs and people.

What licking conveys depends on the context. It could indicate affection, submission, anxiety or other emotions. Knowing what triggers your dog’s licking can help decipher the intent behind it.

Mixed Signals

Licking seems like a simple action, but it can mean different things depending on situation. Sorting through these mixed signals takes knowing your dog’s personality and observing what triggers their licking response.

If licking seems excessive or happens alongside whining or sniffing you, anxiety may be the cause. But for many dogs, licking simply signals bonded affection for their special human friend.

Stress Relief

Licking has calming effects for dogs as well. It can distract them from a stressful situation or uncomfortable emotion. The activity releases feel-good endorphins that lower heart rate and blood pressure.

Grooming behaviors like licking also satisfy dogs’ inherent need to have tasks and structure. Focusing their attention on a regular activity helps alleviate boredom and anxiety when they’re alone.

Signs of Stress in Dogs

Excessive licking in dogs could stem from anxiety. Other stress signals include:

  • Whining, howling or barking
  • Aggression like growling or snapping
  • Pacing or shaking
  • Withdrawing from human interaction

If your dog displays these behaviors, talk to your vet about solutions to reduce their stress.

When to Discourage Face Licking

While licking from dogs is typically harmless, sometimes it’s best to discourage or redirect the behavior. Excessive licking should prompt examining if anxiety is causing the behavior. It’s also prudent to stop licking that’s unwanted or could transmit germs.

Curbing Excessive Licking

To reduce problematic licking, try these tips:

  • Ignore it – Looking away and not reacting can minimize the behavior
  • Say “No” – Firmly tell them to stop
  • Redirect – Get their focus on a toy or command
  • Bitter spray – Apply a deterrent taste on your skin
  • Reduce stress – Make sure their needs for exercise and bonding are met

For dogs that lick due to separation anxiety, consider crate training or medication to address the underlying issue.

Health Risks

Dog saliva entering the mouth, nose or eyes could potentially transmit:

  • Bacteria and fungi
  • Parasites like giardia or roundworms
  • Viruses like canine influenza

So people with weakened immune systems may want to limit face licking from dogs.

Letting your dog lick your face has minimal risk for most healthy adults. But be cautious allowing face licking if you’re immunocompromised, have any open cuts or sores on your face, or want to avoid any transfer of germs.

The Bottom Line

When used appropriately, face licking from dogs can have many benefits for both receiver and giver. It serves as a soothing gesture of affection and empathy from your pet. And it allows dogs to communicate their fondness for you while assessing your current state through their advanced sensory abilities.

By understanding the intent behind why dogs lick faces, we can better appreciate the profoundly intuitive ways our pets relate to us. We can also minimize excessive licking when it becomes problematic. With the right approach, face licking can remain a mutually rewarding interaction strengthening the loving bond between humans and our canine companions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do dogs lick your face when you cry?

Dogs instinctively lick the faces of their vulnerable pack mates, whether puppies or adults. When they see signs of distress like crying, it triggers their natural caregiving tendencies. Licking releases feel-good endorphins and the sensation comforts us. Dogs also lick to gather emotional information through taste and smell.

Why does my dog lick my face in the morning?

Dogs often lick our faces first thing in the morning as a happy greeting. It’s their way of saying good morning and strengthening their bond with us. They may also smell scents on our face accumulated during sleep that intrigue them.

Why does my dog lick my face when I’m sleeping?

Letting dogs lick your face while sleeping can reinforce the behavior, since humans can’t respond to set boundaries. Dogs may try to wake you by licking your face, or take the opportunity to offer doggie kisses when your guard is down.

Is it OK for dogs to lick your face?

Unless it’s excessive or you have a weakened immune system, face licking generally isn’t harmful for healthy adults. It poses a very low risk of transmitting minor illnesses. Allowing dogs to lick your face strengthens your bonding and is a pleasurable sensation for them.

Why do dogs lick each other’s faces?

Mutual licking of the face and muzzle is a common social greeting among dogs. They relay details about identity, status, mood, and more through the taste and scent chemicals in their saliva and on their fur and skin.

Key Takeaways

  • Licking is instinctual for dogs as a form of bonding and caregiving
  • It allows them to gather emotional information about us through taste and scent
  • The sensation releases feel-good chemicals in our brains
  • It signals affection, submission, anxiety, or other emotions
  • Excessive licking may indicate attention-seeking behavior
  • Discourage licking that is unwanted or risky for transmitting illness


When dogs lick our faces, especially when we’re crying, it represents an instinctual, compassionate response. Through this innocuous yet profound gesture, dogs communicate their empathy and devotion just as any close friend or family member would care for someone in distress. Appreciating the psychology and science behind why our pets lick us leads to a richer understanding of cross-species bonds.

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