We kiss and cuddle to show affection and naturally we want to do the same with the dogs we love. But do dogs understand kisses? Do dogs like kisses?
The answer to both these questions is – not necessarily. Kissing is not a natural part of doggie behaviour, although many do learn to enjoy it.
When dogs lick your face in return, this isn’t always a sign of returning affection. Dogs licking can mean many things from showing affection and relieving stress, to showing submission.
Read on to find out if kissing your dog is sending them the right message, and what your dog’s kisses might mean.
Do dogs understand kisses?
Dogs and humans communicate in completely different ways. Unfortunately, we often make the mistake of interpreting dog behaviour in human terms.
Humans rely on verbal or sign language to express ideas and emotions. Dogs primarily depend on body posturing and facial expressions to communicate with each other.
Researchers have studied dogs for years to try and understand them better. It’s tempting to compare dogs to their wild ancestors, wolves.
Much like dogs themselves, though, dog language has also evolved over the 30 000 years since they started living with humans.
Now researchers estimate that, amongst today’s domestic dog breeds, Huskies have retained the most wolf-like language traits. German Shepherds have only retained about three quarters of wolf-like social signaling. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have retained the least wolf-speak in the dog kingdom.
These variations even make it hard for dogs to communicate with other breeds. So it’s no wonder that we sometimes struggle to understand our pets.
Lost in Translation
Since we don’t speak dog, some of the things we take for granted can easily get lost in translation— especially signs of affection, like hugging and kissing.
Kissing is a human trait. Researchers have yet to find a comparable behavior in dogs that reflects the same range of emotions as human kisses.
Dogs do not innately understand what kisses mean. However, just like we learn what their different behaviours mean, dogs are also very good at learning how to interpret our behaviour.
So the short answer to the question, “Do dogs know what kisses are?” is no. This brings us to the next question – “Do dogs like kisses?”
Do dogs like being kissed?
The act of kissing a dog means we place our faces right up against theirs. Sometimes we even go so far as to hug them, throwing our arms around their shoulders.
We might enjoy this from a select number of humans. But think about the last time a relative stranger gave you a hug or a kiss, or someone tried to do this when you weren’t in the mood.
Dogs rarely approach each other straight on. Instead, two dogs greeting each other will approach from the side. Putting your face close to a dog is a very assertive behavior in dog language. If he hasn’t learnt what this is all about he might feel very threatened.
Aggressive dogs may loom over more submissive dogs, trying to make themselves appear larger. In this context, it is easy to see how a dog could confuse a child leaning in for a kiss with a threat.
Because dogs learn what our behaviours mean, the good news is that most dogs can learn to associate our kisses with affection. Even enjoy them reciprocate in their own way.
But Watch Their Reactions
Some dogs, however, only tolerate kisses because we’ve trained them to accept this behavior as normal. Others always find human kisses uncomfortable. Some find kisses downright threatening.
You can usually determine whether a dog likes kisses or not by watching their reactions.
Dog-talk signs that a pup finds kisses stressful include turning their head away, stiffening their body, licking their lips, or yawning – and even licking your face forcefully to try and make you retreat.
So do dogs like kisses? They will show you!
But, you might be saying – if dogs don’t know about kissing, why to dogs lick your face? Let’s have a look at what licking means in dog language.
Why do dogs lick?
You may have seen dogs lick the muzzles of other dogs, or perhaps your dog licks your face on a regular basis.
This may feel like a kiss to us, but what is your dog actually trying to say? It can mean many different things.
Licking is one of the instinctive behaviours through which dogs communicate. Licking is often used to show affection and greeting between dogs.
In fact when dogs lick themselves or others it releases endorphins – the feel good hormones – which relieves stress and comforts the dog.
Licking is also used as a sign of submission, to explore scents, to get attention, or even as a warning to back off.
Mothers and Puppies
The mother licks her pups not only to help them to eliminate, but also to groom and comfort them. While this is not a kiss in the same way that a human mother might kiss her baby, it is still a gesture that carries affection.
As pups grow older they lick their mother’s mouth. This is instinctive behaviour left over from their wolf ancestry when the mother would regurgitate food.
Licking can also be a submissive behavior between dogs. A dog may lick the muzzle of a more dominant dog to avoid retribution. Or your dog could simply be curious about something another dog has eaten.
But why do dogs “kiss” people?
Why do dogs lick your face?
Dogs lick people for all the reasons mentioned above, and more. You should learn how to interpret the rest of their body signals to know whether it’s an affectionate “kiss” or not.
Dogs are observant. If you reacted positively to kisses in the past, they’re more likely to do it again. This becomes an attention-seeking behavior, and could be your dog’s way of saying, “Hello, human friend, pay attention to me.”
Dogs explore the world with sight, sound, smell, and taste. You dog could “kiss” your face simply to get more information about the delicious snack you’ve just eaten, or to find out where you’ve been.
They might even lick you to draw your attention to something that’s worrying them. It might be as simple as that their water bowl is empty. They could even be trying to tell you that there’s something up elsewhere in the house.
An injured or anxious dog might lick a person in the same way a submissive dog licks a more dominant dog. They could be licking because they feel threatened when you, your child, or even a stranger bends over and kisses them.
You might think that they’re kissing you back. In the meantime, their intended meaning could be the complete opposite – and then your further approach could create a dangerous situation.
So even if you believe the answer to do dogs understand kisses is a resounding yes for your own pup – there are still some dangers to watch out for.
Do dogs know what kisses are? – The dangers.
Most dogs tolerate kisses from their owners fairly well. Some may even come to associate kisses with love and attention, and quite a few even enjoy kisses from their people.
They’ll usually show their pleasure by wagging their tails, looking alert and happy, and licking you back.
Unfortunately hugging and kissing behaviors are some of the most common triggers for dog bites to the face, especially with children.
Every year about 400 000 children in the US are bitten by dogs. Most of the bites happen at home, to children younger than 7 years old, and with dogs that they’re familiar with.
Children are impulsive and often appear as a threat to dogs by approaching them when they’re eating. Or they might surprise them with a hug and a kiss while they’re sleeping. Children are also usually not able to interpret the warning signals when a dog doesn’t want to be kissed.
In some cases, dogs who are punished for growling or baring their teeth may even learn to skip more assertive warning signs. They may move straight to a nip, creating an even more dangerous situation.
Play it Safe
So it’s always best to play it safe and avoid kissing unfamiliar dogs. Keep this is mind especially if you adopt an older dog. You never know whether they might have been abused and have serious trust issues.
It’s definitely a good idea to instruct children to engage in respectful behaviors. They should wait for your dog to come to them for gentle pets. This shows that the dog is comfortable and confident with the interaction.
By now you know that dogs don’t kiss each other in the same way we kiss our loved ones. So, how do dogs show affection?
When do dogs like being kissed?
When dogs have been well socialised from a young age they can come to understand kisses and cuddles as your way for showing affection. So do dogs know what kisses are? Many do and also learn to enjoy them.
They may lick you to show affection back, despite it not being natural dog behavior. Your dog has learned that you respond positively to a big, slobbery dog kiss— for better or for worse.
On their part physical proximity is a sign of trust and affection. When your dog is near or snuggled up to you, they’re showing that they love you. Deep sighs reveal that your dog is relaxed in your presence. Many dogs learn to enjoy pets and scratches.
Just like people, dogs are unique. Some dogs express love and affection differently from others. It is up to you to observe them, and do your own research into dog behavior, to interpret their messages.
Do dogs like kisses? – Summary
There is still a great deal we don’t know about dog behavior. And the answer to do dogs like being kissed and do dogs understand kisses is often a no. Furthermore, dogs lick for many reasons and if your dog licks your face it is not necessarily a kiss.
Luckily for humans, dogs are pretty good at interpreting most of our body language. They know when we’re happy, sad, and angry.
They adapt their behavior to live harmoniously with us. In turn, we teach them commands so that they can further abide by our rules.
Whether or not it’s okay to kiss your dog depends largely on your dog – watch how they react when you when you kiss them. If there are any signs of stress, it is a good idea to respect their natural instincts and give them a little space.
If your dog seems totally unfazed, kissing is probably okay, but bear in mind that just because your dog lets you kiss them doesn’t mean they’ll appreciate a kiss from someone else.
Most importantly, teach your own and any other children who may come into contact with your dog how to interact with dogs safely and respectfully.
For more information about dog behavior, talk to your veterinarian or consult with a behavioral specialist.
This article has been extensively revised and updated for 2019.
Further Reading and Resources
- AKC Staff. 2016. Why do dogs lick. American Kennel Club.
- AKC Staff. 2009. Why does my dog lick me. American Kennel Club.
- Davis, A.L. 2012. Dog bite risk: An assessment of child temperament and child-dog interactions. International Journal of Environmental Research in Public Health.
- Horwitz, D. et al. 2014. Canine communication – interpreting dog language. VCA Hospitals.
- Landsberg, G. & Denenberg, S. Social behavior of dogs. Merck Veterinary Manual.
- Meints, K. & de Keuster, T. 2009. Brief report. Don’t Kiss a sleeping dog: the first assessment of: “The Blue Dog” bite prevention program. Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
- Reisner, I. 2013. Dog as a second Language: A primer for humans. Today’s Veterinary Practice.