“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.
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!”)
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.
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.)
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.