Learning to Live Happily Ever After

Should Dog Lick Baby?

Posted by on Dec 3, 2011 in Help! (Q&A), Life With Dog and Baby | 12 comments

Ooh, he's not a fan of licking, is he?

“Is it OK for my dog to lick my baby?  Does that mean he LIKES the baby…or is he TASTING the baby!?” 

I get this question a lot in my Dogs and Babies class.  Licking seems like a good thing, right?  Generally, it’s friendly, familiar, welcoming – something a dog does with someone he or she likes.

Don’t we tell kids, “Oh, look!  He gave you a kiss!”?  (In fact, I have an early childhood memory of feeling so hurt one time when Clancy, a neighborhood beagle, licked a neighbor girl and not me (!) after pestering his poor owner to pet the dog…)

I’ve put a lot of thought into this over the years and I have to say that, “No, your dog should not be encouraged or allowed access to lick your baby.”

Before you stop reading and think, “Wow, she’s just no fun at all,” keep in mind that I am talking about babies.  Human babies that cannot talk, cannot move away or otherwise say, “That’s enough” or “Yuck, that’s some nasty hot dog breath.  WHAT have you been eating?”  This is not about an eight year old kid being welcomed home from school by the family dog!  Kids, toddlers and babies are all very different in terms of what an appropriate interaction might look like.

You’re the parent now so you get to decide what you’re going to do with your family.  Here are some things to consider before saying, “Yes, licking the baby is the way our family is going to roll.”

 

 Does The Baby Even Like It?

Err on the side of protecting your babies’ space while they are voiceless and defenseless.  He or she can always volunteer for licking later, when they know what they’re getting into.

Yes, that's a doll, not a psychotic looking baby.

I have to come clean and admit that I neglected to consider this with my first child, pictured above at around age 2, because I didn’t mind being licked by dogs.  Many days, I’d be holding the baby and the dogs would come over and each want to give him a morning lick before they went about their day.  I confess that I thought it was endearing.  It was a single pass-by lick each day that seemed harmless…

It wasn’t until my son started talking that I began to realize that he might be a cat person.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)  When he was very young, he oddly announced, “Cats thrill me.”  Weird, but OK, whatever.  I like cats, too.  But, I have to wonder if those early licks turned him into a cat person!  Maybe if he didn’t have a big ole dog face coming right at him as a baby with that big, hot, wet tongue slapping his face, he would have liked dogs more?  Hard to say, but something to think about before you let the licking begin.

 

What If the Baby Likes It TOO Much?

On the other hand, some babies will think it’s really funny to have a big, wet dog face in theirs.  Laughing babies are irresistibly cute, I know, but it does no good to magnetize a baby to your dog.  See explanations here, here, here and here.   When children under five are bitten, it’s almost always to the face or head.  That’s the body part babies and toddlers present to dogs.  A baby that enjoys being licked is more likely to put her face up to dogs. Don’t even go there.  There are plenty of other things for your baby to laugh about and plenty of time later for lickfests when the child is older.

 

Is Licking Really “Kissing?”

Where did this idea even come from?  Did someone way back with an unruly dog make it up as an excuse for not training his dog? That’s brilliant when you think about it – “My dog must really like you!” means instant dispensation from teaching calmer, more polite greeting behavior.  (As a side note, this often works for bad housekeeping, too, “I like you as a real  friend because I didn’t worry about cleaning up before you came over!”)

People often turn their heads when dogs lick. Smart dogs keep this in mind if they later they need to nicely tell someone to move away, please.  Maybe a lick will do the trick!

We so often assume licking is automatically friendly that we are blinded to other possibilities.  I don’t mean to take all the fun out of enjoying a good lick and I’m not saying that licking is secretly evil. It’s just that licking is not a guarantee that your dog is now Lassie and will forever love your baby.  (Plus, did you know they put butter on Timmy’s cheek to get Lassie to lick him?  So even Lassie is not “Lassie,” is she?  (Or should I say “he” since all the Lassies were actually male dogs…)  Regardless, let’s all keep in mind that Lassie was acting and focus on what real life dogs might have to tell us.

You have to look at the context and just consider if the whole picture suits your construct and not just assume licking = kissing.  Because, really, dogs don’t generally “kiss” each other in greeting. (They sniff each other’s butts!)  Licking is more a dog + human behavior and can serve a number of purposes:

  • Greeting – We like it so we encourage it by laughing and interacting in a friendly way with our dogs, and our dogs learn to do it more.  Nothing wrong with this!
  • To Get More Space — Most people turn their heads and move away when a dog licks.  Lots of videos showing dogs licking babies can be interpreted as the dog trying to encourage the baby to move away a bit, especially when there is a bone or toy involved.  Jennifer Shryock of Dogs and Storks talks about this in her Kiss or Dismiss blog post and with more examples here.
  • Nervous, Anxious Habit — Sometimes the dog just doesn’t know what to do and reverts to puppy licking behavior when he’d probably do better with some space or human guidance to acclimate to whatever’s going on.
  • General “In Your Face” Behavior — Before going to someone’s house for a training session, experienced dog trainers know to ask, “So, how might your dog greet me when I get there?“  When the answer is, “Oh, he’s really friendly.  That’s one of his problems.  He’s just too friendly!,” we know to ask more and be prepared for an overly-aroused dog with little or no self-control.  Just because the dog is licking doesn’t mean he’s not also being a little too pushy and disregarding of personal space (see below).  There are better ways to teach dogs to get our attention.
  • Getting Food! – Much of the time, babies and toddler have something tasty (to dogs, at least) on their faces or clothing and that’s what the dog is going for.  One family I worked with had a dog obsessed with baby spit-up that would dash right to the baby’s face to get it fresh from the source.

 

Personal Space – This is Not Your DOG’S Baby!

Encouraging or allowing licking invites the dog into your baby’s personal space.  My preference is to have a dog happy to hang out with the family but not rushing into anyone’s personal space, especially a baby or toddler.

It takes a little while for dogs to take note of babies and toddlers instead of barreling right through them.  In fact, there was a day when one of my kids was a toddler and I was so happy to see our dog break our brand new patio door screen.  As I tried to explain to my husband, this was a GOOD thing — in her rush to dash outside to bark, she went around the baby!

A dog fixated on licking is also more likely to knock over small children and/or frighten visiting kids who don’t want a dog so up close and personal.  I want all kids to feel safe around my dogs.

Whoops! Coming through!!

 

Same goes for any other behavior that’s up close and personal with your baby.  Sometimes people will say, “Yes, but my dog is a particularly curious dog and he’s going to want to investigate,” or “My dog is a Bloodhound and has a strong drive to sniff,” or fill in the blank with whatever reason that serves to mask the reality that the dog has simply not yet learned to maintain self-control in the presence of something of interest.

 

 Now What?  How Can I Stop My Dog From Licking?

I’ll have to write a separate “how-to” piece and maybe a video one of these days.  In the meantime, you can follow this general approach to changing any  behavior:

  • Prevent your dog from rehearsing the unwanted behavior.  The more the dog gets to lick, the stronger the licking habit becomes.  This means you may have to change the physical set-up until you help equip your dog with new habits.  Maybe a gate on the baby’s room or dog on a leash and out of range during floor time, etc.  Other ways to manage around the problem include tiring out your dog with physical or mental stimulation or using chew bones or food puzzle toys to keep your dog busy with something else to do.
  • Keep an informal log.  Nothing fancy required!  Just get a pad of paper and jot down the day, time and situation where your dog seems inclined to want to lick the baby.  Maybe it’s a morning lick situation like with my dogs, maybe it’s when the baby has food on her face, maybe it’s when the baby comes too close, etc.  Keeping track helps you know when to be more ready to intercept your dog and it helps you track progress over time.  If you don’t know WHEN and WHAT your problem is, your efforts to solve it will not be very effective.
  • Reinforce a Point of Success.  At what point in the sequence you identified on your log is the dog NOT licking the baby?  That’s where you have the greatest influence to change the behavior trajectory. This may be as soon as the dog walks in the room but before he goes over to check out the baby.  Even a simple, “Hi, how are ya, good dog?” and an offered treat can make the dog forget what he was meaning to do.
  • Teach what you WANT the dog to do.  For the situations where the dog is chronically wanting to lick the baby, consider what you’d like the dog to do instead and build that behavior.  New behaviors can be established well enough for reasonable real life use in just a couple of weeks of short sessions each day.  If you can’t think of what you want, go with Relax on a Mat from Nan Arthur’s Chill Out Fido book.  Here’s a nice success story on Lili Chin’s Boogie’s Blog.
  • Don’t make it worse!  The more drama on your part, the more complicated it gets to unravel.  If the dog is already licking the baby before you can do anything to prevent it, calmly move the baby or dog out of reach. You can still say, “Good dog, thank you, that’s enough” and make it a non-issue.  Write a note on your log so you can be better prepared next time.  If it become a big freak-out, you may very well be marking licking as a sure-fire attention-getter.  Bored?  Not sure why no one is noticing you?  Hey, lick the baby!  THAT always works to stir things up around here…  And, of course, any reaction that involves yelling at or hitting your dog is likely to frighten your baby and make your dog more on edge in proximity to the baby.
  • Consult a qualified professional, where necessary.  If you feel like your dog is “obsessed” with licking the baby or tracks her motions or stares constantly or is unresponsive to you or can’t relax and/or do something else in the presence of the baby, you’ve got to get that situation evaluated for more serious issues, particularly if you have a fast-reacting and/or strong and powerful dog.  Anytime there is a worry about aggressive or dangerous behavior, you obviously can’t rely on someone’s general internet advice who has never seen your situation in person!!  Also, sometimes, things sound good in theory but don’t go as smoothly when you try it yourself and you can save a lot of time and effort getting one-on-one coaching.  (Later, I’ll have info in the Training Tips section on how to evaluate and choose a trainer, but remember, if anyone’s advice primarily centers on what to do TO the dog when he does something you don’t want, you are dealing with a “point of failure” trainer.  See Training Philosophy page.)

 

Personal Hygiene

So, WHERE has that mouth been, again??

Being a mom of boys, I’m not going to last if I’m a germaphobe.  I’m not a great housekeeper, either (as you will discover if you are one of my “real friends”) so I’m in no position to spout off about dog germs.  This part is more appropriate for discussion with your child’s pediatrician.

I’m pretty much OK with dog licking but you have to admit it IS a little gross when you think about where that tongue has been…

Like I said at the start, every family makes their own decisions about how they are going to allow dog and baby to interact.  You don’t have to believe anything anyone tells you.  I just want people to have information that goes beyond the myths and fairytales so you can make an informed decision about what’s right for you.

 

12 Comments

Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Barbara Shumannfang

    I can’t help it, I love the first photo—-just perfectly captures the “yuck.” As always I’m sure your advice will put a lot of parents’ minds at ease and bust some myths.

    Your new website is terrific, congratulations! :-)

  2. Elizabeth

    We use an “enough” command. Our baby has salty hands and feet that our dog likes the taste of. There is no face-licking allowed and no constant licking allowed but one or two greeting licks of the hands are acceptable in our house and then we say “enough” and encourage dog to find something else to do. He also has to sit before licking, so that there is a wee bit of self-control happening. I don’t think it has to be an all or nothing thing – I think there is a way to have mutually respectful licking.

  3. Caitlin

    I know this post is older but I have a question. :) How do you feel about putting the behavior on cue? I don’t have kids yet but several friends have babies and one of my dogs LOVES to lick them. We use “enough” to get her to stop and it works fairly well but she usually comes back around. Most people don’t mind it but I’d hate to really offend someone with my licky dog. I thought putting it on cue might work better – she’d know to keep her distance until I tell her it’s okay to lick. Thoughts?

    • Madeline Gabriel

      Hi Caitlin — Good question! Is there anything else your dog licks in this manner? If so, I’d say go ahead and try the putting it on cue approach with those other targets so you’d get the self-control benefit around babies, too. However, I wouldn’t try to train that with real babies because I think it still encourages too much focus on the baby. Instead of, “I want to lick that baby but I’m holding back, waiting for my cue!,” I’d like to see behavior that makes me guess the dog is thinking, “Oh yeah, there’s a baby over there but I’m busy doing this. The baby is not my concern.” (I know we all know the dogs aren’t really thinking this – it’s just an illustration.) I want to see dogs attentive to their owners in the presence of babies and/or calmly relaxed and doing their own thing. It’s not the dog’s baby and there is nothing the dog can do that will be helpful with the baby. Sometimes it helps clarify things to visualize the baby as a rotisserie chicken. Just because the dog WANTS to lick it doesn’t mean you would ever let that be a possibility. Dogs are OK with that in plenty of areas of their lives with humans.

      When you are looking at training solutions, look to the behavior that comes before the dog goes over to lick — that’s a point of success to reinforce. That’s different than waiting until she’s licking and telling her to stop. There are lots of things online about teaching boundaries with clicker training and default leave-its. One of these days, I’ll finish updating my training tips section and put all that in there. In the meantime, look to Nan Arthur’s book Chill Out Fido, Leslie McDevitt’s book Control Unleashed and YouTube channels “kikopup” and “pamelamarxsen.” I think it’s Colleen Pelar’s book Living With Kids and Dogs that has a section on teaching a dog to remain behind a rope on the ground as a visual boundary. The situation you describe would be a great application for that.

      Thanks for the question! I wish you all the best.

  4. jhoysi

    REALLY happy I’ve come across this! We have an 8-month old daughter and an 18-month old border collie/lab and the two are at a point where curiosity is overwhelming for both of them. Most of the time, they are kept separate, but that is not what we want long-term, plus both of them are becoming less tolerant of it. When they do spend time together, I feel more like a referee – dog is just overjoyed to be near the baby and wants to lick her – and worse PLAY with her (at almost 50 pounds, she doesn’t quite get that she’s neither a lap dog nor a little puppy anymore). Since we’re just getting started getting the two of them together, I’m happy to have found this before real bad habits on my part have taken hold.

    I try the “enough” approach, but it quickly becomes “No! NO!” which I don’t want to exacerbate hyperactivity by adding nervousness to her excitement, nor do I want her associating anger or frustration with the baby. This post will definitely help us keep at it with short, encouraging sessions. Great resource!

    • Madeline Gabriel

      You are right — it’s no fun to constantly be moving one or the other away all the time. That’s why I aim for the peaceful coexistence without any real “magnetization.” I’ll have lots more to write when my kids are back in school and I can get back to work! Remember, it’s not your dog’s baby. Most likely, there are other things that also elicit your dog’s attention and desire to be closer (toy? plate of food?) so you have other things you can use when you are working on building self-control — you don’t have to use your daughter. Check out http://www.wholedogtraining.com/images/stories/Relax_on_a_mat.pdf for a nice start on teaching dogs to relax. The rest of Nan Arthur’s book, CHILL OUT FIDO, is also excellent. See also http://www.familypaws.com for webinars to help parents integrate dog and child. I’m glad you’re getting on the right track!

  5. stan

    Meh.
    Our 10 month old son dissolves into giggles when the dog gives him a kiss, but I agree, it’s also a good maneuver on the dog’s part to get him to go away, as he will back off.
    This kid is absolutely in love with this dog (who has learned to either give a kiss and roll over or just jump up and run away when she sees him coming – luckily, she can still outrun him).
    NO ONE hangs out unsupervised, period.
    Ever.
    Even though our dog is Lassie (collie)…LOL!

    • Madeline Gabriel

      I’m glad to hear you’re on top of supervising dog and baby! In my class, I talk about the difference between supervising and guiding (because a bite can happen so fast that you cannot prevent it, even if you are “right there” — prevention happens long before the dog gets to the point of biting). I need to write more about that on the blog. Just keep in mind your observation that your dog sometimes jumps up and runs away when she sees your baby coming. I’m sure that’s not the association you want to foster: “Yikes, here he comes – I’d better get outta here!” Because you are right that the day will come where your dog can’t easily escape your child or she has nowhere to go. You’re getting some good early warning signs in plenty of time to make changes. Check out my blog series on “magnetized” babies. What you’re describing is exactly a magnetized baby. As the parent, you have to decide if this is a risk you want to take with your child (because not everyone’s dog is Lassie, literally or figuratively). Thanks for writing!

  6. Kimberly Duncan

    Really nice to know if baby likes dogs, I have a dog but I never leave my baby near it. I think I have to start supervising my baby allow her near our big tommy.

    ~Kim

    • Randi-Lyn Cook

      I know this is old but I have a question, I have a 4 year old husky cross, she’s very tiny about knee hight and 30lbs, my second child, my son is 4 1/2 months old, just the last week she’s become practically obsessed with my son, she’s constantly licking him when he’s crying or talking (she did this with my daughter(3) but very very mildly compared to now) and whines when he crys or talks, I’m 90% sure its a loving thing but its very annoying and drives my poor baby crazy, the weird thing is she doesn’t do it if its just me her and my son. she’s constantly watching him and I have to convience her to leave him unintended. Is telling her to stop the right thing to do? And she’s constantly near me lately, she’s always been close with me but now its like she needs to be near me. I don’t think shed being aggressive but I worry it might turn into it if my daughter or nephew were to accidentally hurt the baby or if she thought they were. She’s never left unattended with the baby of course.

      • Madeline Gabriel

        Randi-Lyn – thank you for writing! I can give you a quick answer here, but it’s always good to find someone who can look at your situation in person, especially when there is a sudden change of behavior for a mature dog. A good resource is Family Paws Parent Education where you can find a hotline and a listing of trainers/associates who may be of assistance. See if it helps to disassociate the behavior from the baby so you don’t get stuck in the black hole of wondering what the dog “thinks” about the baby. Instead, focus on what you’d like the dog to do instead in the presence of the baby. Being close to you is great when the dog can Relax on a Mat or do something that is not getting into your baby’s space (especially because you can tell your baby does not like it). Look on YouTube, too for the “kikopup” channel and some short videos on default leave it – where a dog learns to not obsess about something in reach that he wants. In the meantime, be friendly in how you direct your dog, “Good boy, over here!” vs. feeling like you are making her stop. Use gates or other barriers or dog on leash to make baby “unavailable” to dog – allowing you to build new habits in proximity to baby. There is certainly a lot more that can make things easier to manage, both now and going forward when that baby starts to crawl! Remember – your son is not your dog’s baby and it will benefit everyone for her to be off duty when it comes to this sort of vigilance around the baby. Contact me if you’d like to discuss a phone/video consultation or if you need a referral for someone in person to check out what’s going on.

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