“How do I discourage my friends’ dogs from licking my face? I am not a big fan. It’s unhygienic.”

A friend recently challenged me to answer this question in a blog post. I am not an expert in animal behavior (an ethologist) or a certified dog trainer. I am someone who has lived most of her life with dogs and who has read a few books about dog behavior. While this by no means makes me an expert, I’ll still give it a try.

If we are trying to discourage species-specific behavior, perhaps it makes sense to start by taking a look at why this animal engages in this behavior. Why do dogs lick? There are lots of reasons, many of which have to do with grooming:

Dogs lick to clean their paws and hind quarters (really, any part of their body they can reach by tongue). They lick to clean their wounds. (Their saliva has some anti-bacterial qualities. Really!) They lick to rid themselves of parasites like fleas and ticks. They lick to cool themselves off in hot weather. (So do cats.) Mama dogs lick to groom their pups and also to help them urinate and defecate when they are too little to manage this on their own. (Yuck. Don’t think too much about it.) Puppies later lick at the mouths of their mother in order to get a little of what she is eating.

Clearly these last two reasons go beyond grooming and venture into the realm of social behavior. This is harder to interpret. And there is more.

According to Bonnie Beaver, veterinarian and author of Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers, submissive dogs lick the mouths of dominant dogs in order to win them over: “the inappropriateness of the behavior helps defuse the tension.” Maybe this is what your friends’ dogs are doing when they approach you with their tongues wagging. This is their canine version of a joke!

So the question is how do you discourage a dog from trying to win you over. Why would you want to? This magnificent beast wants to be your friend! Are you some kind of ogre?!

Just kidding. So of course the dog means well but you are not a dog and use different social cues to indicate that you want to be friends. Why not use one of them? Tell the dog to sit and then pet her head around her ears and scratch her rump. Tell her that she is a good dog. Or suggest that she wrap her tongue around a treat or a toy rather than your face. Whatever you do, don’t reward the behavior that you find unpleasant (the licking) by laughing or otherwise encouraging her. In fact, ignoring this undesirable behavior or redirecting the dog’s energy may be the best way to shut it down.

Failing that, try a hockey mask.

Time to move on to the next question … this one is from a canine friend of mine who asks: “How do I discourage my human friends from wrapping their arms around me in what they call a ‘hug’? I am not a big fan. It’s suffocating.”