Everyone loves to think that when their dog licks them when they get home from work, it’s their dog’s way of giving them a kiss. That’s definitely my preferred way of thinking. I want the affection! But at the same time, a dog will eat, like, a month-old piece of macaroni that fell under the stove. A dog would almost certainly eat you, too, if it really came down to it. To a dog, all that salty sweat on your skin is likely quite delectable. So, are they really giving you kisses because they love you, or because you’re essentially a warm salt deposit?
We don’t know for sure, because we haven’t yet figured out how to read dogs’ minds (side note: can everyone quit fucking around and make it happen already?). However, what we know about animal behavior in the wild might point to some possible answers.
“Researchers of wild canids — wolves, coyotes, foxes and other wild dogs — report that puppies lick the face and muzzle of their mother when she returns from a hunt to her den — in order to get her to regurgitate for them,” Alexandra Horowitz, head of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, told the American Kennel Club. Because of this phenomenon, experts speculate that dogs might lick you because they similarly hope you will cough up a dead squirrel for them to snack on. Or, as dogs have become domesticated, perhaps they hope you will toss an extra scoop of kibbel into their bowl. Either way, can’t really blame ‘em.
But there’s still some hope out there that it’s a sign of affection. Wild pack animals have been observed licking each other as a greeting, and your own dog likely has some instinctive memory of their own mother licking them when they were puppies. So, there’s definitely a chance it’s at least partially a greeting.
If you notice your dog wants to lick you more after you’ve just exercised, that’s a pretty clear indication that your dog mostly wants to taste your sweat. According to the American Kennel Club, this is pretty normal behavior. In some cases, though, excessive licking can become a problem. For some dogs, it’s a sign of anxiety: Repeated licking of an object (or your arm) can indicate that the dog needs more stimulation. The American Kennel Club recommends outdoor play or trick-training as a way of engaging your dog and giving them some positive reinforcement.
Whatever the truth is, there’s enough evidence to support you holding on to the belief that your dog is giving you affection when they lick you. Maybe they’re just hungry and your skin is extra-seasoned, but it’s fine. We all need some love, and you’re only half-lying to yourself, anyway.