Dog Behavior and Training: Cleaning Ears

Why does my dog not like having his ears cleaned?


Most dogs’ ears are much larger than ours, and their ear canals are much longer. They are certainly a lot more sensitive. Owners usually only need to clean them when there is a problem; however, they may already be painful at this point, so the dog learns that handling around the ears is painful. If your dog’s first experience with ear care is during a painful infection, he may learn that the smell and sight of ear cleaners and medicine predict pain.

Dogs frequently develop inflammatory conditions of the ears, so it is essential to train your dog to allow handling of his ears from an early age. Ideally, this is done when the ears are healthy, so the dog learns that handling his ears is not a painful procedure. Then, if your dog develops an ear infection that needs treatment, it will be easier to provide care because of the positive learning history.

How do I treat the ears when my dog is painful?

If the ear is extremely painful, your dog is objecting because of pain and not to be defiant. It is prudent to discuss oral medications for pain control or alternate cleaning methods with your veterinarian. Sometimes, time-release medicines can be used, and calming medicines can be given before home care to reduce your dog’s stress during treatment. Stop and contact your veterinarian for support if your dog shows signs of fear or aggression during home ear care.

"If the ear is extremely painful, your dog is objecting because of pain and not to be defiant."

How will my veterinarian treat my dog’s ears when they are painful?

To conduct a complete ear examination or to clean and start treatment on the ears when they are infected or inflamed, your veterinarian will likely recommend sedation or a general anesthetic and a thorough cleaning procedure in the veterinary office. Using sedation and anesthesia allows the veterinarian to safely and completely inspect and clean the ear without causing pain or fear.

Once the ears are cleaned and the medication begins to work, the ears become less painful, and it becomes easier for you to continue regular treatment at home. In some cases, your veterinarian will prescribe a pain control or anti-inflammatory medication to be used along with topical medications. If the ears are particularly uncomfortable, oral medications may be given for a few days before starting the topical ear medication.

My dog is already aggressive when his ears are touched. What should I do?

For safety, every dog should learn to wear a basket muzzle. To keep everyone safe, you may need to use a basket muzzle during the retraining process (see the handout “Muzzle Training for Dogs" for more information).

If a dog is aggressive toward ear handling, he is likely in a fearful or anxious emotional state. Changing your dog’s emotions about ear handling can be done using a desensitization and counterconditioning protocol. This involves finding a non-stressful starting point and then pairing minimal controlled exposures to handling the ears with something your dog loves to teach him that ear handling is not frightening and to replace the existing emotion of fear with one of pleasant anticipation or at least understanding and tolerance (see the handout “Introduction to Desensitization and Counterconditioning" for more information about this method).

My dog has just had his ears cleaned under anesthetic, and I have drops to give him, but I can’t get near him. What can I do?

Contact your veterinarian for guidance first, then consult a behavior expert if you still have trouble. Continuing to pursue placing the drops when your dog shows avoidance and fear can prompt aggression that can be difficult to reverse. Consulting with a professional familiar with Cooperative Veterinary Care techniques and desensitization and counterconditioning is the best way to prevent the situation from worsening.

How long does training for ear handling take?

Teaching a dog to accept ear handling while the ears are comfortable can take a few days or months, depending on the dog and the handler’s skills.

Remember to stay within your dog’s comfort zone and watch for body language signs of stress:

  • Wide eyes, especially if the whites are showing and they usually do not
  • Yawning when not tired
  • “Wet Dog Shake” when not wet
  • Stiff muscles or rapid movements
  • Taking treats roughly or not at all
  • Pawing or staring at you, or constantly seeking attention
  • Lying down but constantly fidgeting or twitching between positions
  • Moving, looking, or leaning away, or general avoidance

While staying in your dog’s comfort zone, gradually practice touching your dog’s head, ears, ear flaps, and ear canals and wiping his ears with dry and wet cotton balls. Introduce the sight and smell of ear cleansing solution. These small steps should predict something wonderful, such as a preferred food reward or a few seconds of play with a favorite toy.

"While staying in your dog’s comfort zone, gradually practice touching your dog’s head, ears, ear flaps, and ear canals and wiping his ears with dry and wet cotton balls."

Avoid using distractions, such as offering your dog a long-lasting treat and handling the ears while he is distracted by it. Sometimes, a dog will stay engaged with the distraction, which makes it harder for them to show the subtle signs of stress above, even if they are stressed, because they would have to agree to give up the valuable distraction. In such situations, the dog may still fear ear care and suddenly show aggression or discomfort. It can also cause them to fear the distraction over time, such as refusing peanut butter or cheese in the future because it predicts uncomfortable handling.

Always keep the handling level below your dog’s threshold for comfort and have the start of handling predict or turn on the treats rather than the reverse. Stopping handling turns off the treats. Proceed at your dog’s pace. A helpful tip is to begin the first couple of training sessions when he is hungry (i.e., before you feed him). Food treats hold more appeal when a dog is hungry!

Once your dog is comfortable with ear handling, you need to continue to practice with him so that if he does develop another problem in the future, your job will be much easier because ear handling is a normal, trusted part of everyday life.