What was that?!
Oh, just your precious pup giving your ears a little peck. Feels a bit weird- but otherwise harmless, really.
I’m willing to bet it’s not the first time that your dog has snuck up behind you on the floor and decided that your ears look like a wondrous, gnawable treat.
So it must’ve gotten you wondering:
“Why does my dog nibble my ear?”
Well, the reasons are five-fold.
Firstly, your dog may just be- scratch that- is definitely excited to see you, play with you, and generally to be around you! It’s the quality that earned them their standing as man’s best friend, and that status is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
As excited as it may be, your dog also loves to show you how much it adores and respects you too. Licking and nibbling are signs of submission for canines, and it might just see nibbling as a way of sprucing you up and grooming you as well.
A nibble on the ears might not be for purely selfless reasons, however. Similar to licking belly buttons, your pooch may be looking for a taste sensation, and there’s no doubt that human ears with their sweat, oils, and wax (ew) provide a different culinary experience to their daily dog biscuits.
Finally, if your dog nibbles non-stop on your hearing flaps, it may be due to bad habits and tendencies that it picked up from puppyhood. This may have resulted from being weaned too early, or if it is still a puppy it may simply be teething.
While the love bites are undeniably adorable, it may be something you want to swivel your eye around and keep a lookout on if things start to get a bit painful or obsessive, or if you’re worried about a possible ear infection from dog saliva.
If you want to stop your dog nibbling at your ear altogether, that’s easy enough to do too through methods such as giving it better alternatives, providing positive reinforcement, and simply being firm!
Have you ever noticed that when your dog nibbles your ear, it’s always in a frenzy- like the world’s least threatening piranha?
Seldom will be the case where it gnaws at your ear in a calm, refined manner. It isn’t fine dining.
The reason behind this, of course… is excitement!
When your dog’s excited to go for a walk, thrilled to play fetch, ecstatic to go for a swim, or just plain over-the-moon to see you after a long day- it may give your ears an adoring nibble just to let you know.
Usually, there is a direct correlation between excitement and nibbles: the more exhilarated your pup is feeling, the more mouthy it will tend to be.
However, the guzzling won’t always be because it’s feeling excited about something. Sometimes, nibbling on ears can also be a signal that your dog needs you in some way, whether it be for dinner or a potty break.
This will usually be accompanied by whining and puppy dog eyes, so you will know that it wants your attention for some important thing!
Just remember: you are the center of your dog’s universe, and while it can’t talk and say to you what you mean to it, it will show you in other ways such as high-speed tail wags, sloppy kisses, and light nipping (the equivalent of hugs in the dog world).
A simple explanation for why your dog nibbles your ear is one which you might’ve guessed yourself already: It’s showing just how much it loves you!
Along with burying their head into your lap, nibbling can be a very clear sign of affection from a dog to their owner.
It may also be a gesture to show you that it knows and accepts that you’re the boss.
You see, dogs are pack animals by nature and have a hierarchical instinct when they are in a group. Every action they do to another member of the pack is some form of communication.
Dogs that lick and nibble the others in their family have a tendency to be the more submissive members, and they just want to demonstrate their acknowledgment that they respect you as their leader.
By nibbling your ears, they are also displaying at the same time that they are comfortable around you and that they adore you- because would they do that to someone they were scared of and didn’t love?!
Next time your dog has a nibble on your ear, know that it could possibly just be trying to say, “I like you so much, I hope you like me back too- oh, please like me back!”
And I’m sure you will.
Licking and nibbling can also be associated with the ancient instincts of dogs to help to groom their fellow packmates. How thoughtful!
Dogs tend to get pretty dirty and muddy, even at the best of times. Usually, any dirt or debris stuck on the fur of the legs or body can be pretty easily handled with a few wet licks of the tongue.
However, the fact remains that ears are pretty difficult places for a dog to reach and clean by itself.
In fact, did you know that 99.9% of canines don’t have tongues that are long enough to reach behind their ears?
As for that 0.01%? Those are lizards, actually.
Jokes aside, ears truly are a more difficult area to groom, and for dogs living together the responsibility of aural appendage washing usually falls to the closest family members.
It’s a mutual understanding; an activity borne out of selflessness and trust.
Even when a dog is domesticated and living with humans, it may still try to carry out this behavior to make sure that you are clean and well-groomed behind the ears.
After all, you surely do your best to keep your pup’s ears neat and tidy too. By nibbling at yours, it’s just trying to return the favor the only way it knows how!
No, this doesn’t mean that your dog wants to eat your ears… or does it?
As you are hopefully already aware, dogs don’t have hands. Instead, their mouths are solely responsible for the functions of holding, feeling and touching.
Dogs not only use their mouths for tasting purposes, but also to explore the objects and environment around them. Canines primarily rely on their sense of taste and smell to make sense of the world and of the other creatures in it.
Chances are, there is nothing more interesting or that smells more peculiar on your head than the ears that stick out from each side. With their supremely keen sensory abilities, dogs may be able to learn a lot about their humans just by the occasional nibble on the hearing organs.
Ears, just like any other areas of skin on our bodies, produce oil and sweat. So while we don’t know what ears taste like to a dog, chances are that they are some combination of salty, sour and bitter- not to mention the added pungent tanginess of any ear wax present.
While it may not sound particularly appetizing to us, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of flavors and aroma for any discerning dog. Who needs the bland taste profile of kibble or Reese’s Pieces when you can have the taste explosion that is ear wax, amiright?
There have also been many cases on the internet where a dog’s sudden interest in nibbling its owner’s ear was eventually found to be due to a developing ear infection.
The change in smell attracted the dog so intensely that it wanted nothing more than to have a sampling of whatever was inside the ear.
Therefore, if your dog has recently started showing a sudden interest in gnawing your (strangely itchy, ringing) ears- it may be a good idea to pay your doctor a visit!
The final reason as to why your dog might enjoy nibbling on your ears may have links to its experience when it was still only a puppy.
Nibbling is a behavior that is instinctive, and starts from just a few weeks of age. Newborn puppies learn to nibble as a group, and play together by gently gnawing on each other. Usually, these actions are affectionate and dogs remember it as such all through to adulthood.
Through play, they also learn the important doggy value of bite inhibition, where if they accidentally start to chew on a fellow littermate a bit too hard it will cause negative reactions such as yelping, whining, shunning by the group, and maybe even being bitten back.
Experiencing a few of these reactions is all part of a puppy’s normal growth process, and it doesn’t take too long before a puppy knows to keep its mouth and ‘toofers’ to itself.
However, a puppy that is weaned and separated from its litter too early doesn’t get a chance to master these lessons. Instead, as it’s nearest playmate, you become the focus and target of its little nibbles and nips.
If your dog is still just a puppy now, it may also be affected by the teething issues that every canine goes through.
It can be pretty painful while new teeth are growing out, and if there’s nothing suitable for them to chew on to relieve the discomfort, they’ll soon find another outlet- in this case, your poor ears!
Nibbling is a completely normal behavior in dogs, and it’s totally up to you whether or not you want to discourage (or encourage- no judgment) the action.
If you enjoy getting a few love bites from your pup on the ear every now and then, and are sure that there’s no aggressiveness behind the conduct, then it’s really a completely harmless activity.
However, there are a few situations where it might be a better idea to discourage your dog from becoming too comfortable with nibbling, such as:
- If there is aggression or dominance behind the action,
- If it’s becoming so frequent that it is bordering on obsessive compulsive behavior,
- If your dog doesn’t know its own strength and bites too hard,
- If there are young children or elderly people involved; or
- If you simply don’t like having your ears nibbled on!
There are 3 main ways to discourage and eventually stop your dog from gnawing your ears: Providing other distractions and outlets like chew toys and exercise, being firm with boundaries, and giving plenty of praise when it’s deserved.
Two of the main reasons that a dog might nibble on your ears, especially if it is still a puppy, is because it is either teething or bored. Both scenarios can be easily solved with something that you can find in any good pet store: chew toys!
By providing your dog with a variety of safe, durable chew toys with different textures (such as wood-like toys), you will be able to distract them effectively and make them forget all about your (sore) ear.
If your dog’s insistence on gnawing your ear is based purely on boredom, a brief walk outside is an easy, effective way to take your dog’s mind off you and instead onto the exciting adventure that lies ahead.
Always remember that at the end of the day, you are the leader of the pack and that you are responsible for setting rules and boundaries. You are also responsible for making sure that those limits and boundaries are obeyed by your puppy or dog.
In general, dogs aim to please those that they are subordinate to, and it’s up to you to make it very clear to them what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.
When your dog’s mouth starts to hover ever closer to your ears, stop any further advance with a strong, firm “No!” At this point, it is very important to not allow any contact with any part of your head. Repeat this as many times as necessary until your pup no longer tries to eat your ears.
If your dog is extremely quick and already has your ears in its teeth before you even know it, say “Ouch!” in loud, sharp tones and wait for it to stop out of concern. Once it does, walk away and refuse to engage with your dog for the next 10 minutes.
Resume play once 10 minutes have passed, but repeat this process every time your dog does something you don’t want it to. In this way, it will learn very quickly that nibbling on your ears will bring an immediate end to playtime, every time.
When your dog does the thing that you want it to do (namely leaving your ears alone), make sure that you reward it generously! This can be accomplished through loud, enthusiastic praise and petting, or by giving it yummy treats.
Dogs respond very well to, and in fact learn best from positive reinforcement. By giving your pooch positive feedback each time it listens to your instruction and shows restraint, you will slowly be able to remove the bad habit of nibbling through conditioning.
It’s important to be patient and consistent when training your dog to nibble less. If you are diligent and persistent, it won’t be long till your dog completely forgets what it’s even like to gnaw on human ears!
Though the action of nibbling on ears itself is generally pretty harmless, there are always some health concerns when dog saliva is involved. This is especially the case when canines have been known to find great delight in delicacies ranging from dead squirrels to poop of all kinds.
The greatest worry of course when a dog is anywhere near your ear is if any possible infection could result. If a puppy is licking here, there, and everywhere- surely there’s a chance that some of those germs could end up on or in your ears too!
Making matters worse is the fact that ears are almost the perfect environment for bacteria and yeast to grow.
Moist? Check, now that your pup’s saliva is all over them.
As a final potentially-lethal blow, an infection in the ears would be dangerously close to the brain. Now that’s definitely one area you don’t want any germs to be!
While the infection risk to most people is ultimately very low, humans with lower immune systems like babies, elderly citizens, those with diminished resistances and open wounds should beware.
In fact, there has been a documented case where a patient developed meningitis when his dog licked his injured ear. This just goes to demonstrate that people need to be as careful as possible and take all reasonable precautions when they do have an increased risk of infection.
A few of things that you can do to prevent a chance of infection include:
- Not letting your dog lick or nibble your ears
- Washing and grooming your dog when necessary
- Always washing hands after playing with your dog
- Keeping a close eye on what your dog is eating.
So, why does your dog nibble your ear?
Really, it comes down to five main factors:
- Excitement and submission
- Show of love and affection
- Wanting to groom you as a fellow pack member/leader
- Delicious/Attractive-tasting ears; and
- Ingrained puppy habits.
Though nibbling on ears is generally harmless, it’s completely up to you whether you allow your dog to do it or not. While some may find it adorable, others may also rightly worry about physical danger and infection risk.
If you want your dog to stop this behavior in the future, you can discourage it through a combination of methods such as providing alternative forms of entertainment, firmly setting limits, and giving positive reinforcement when warranted.
Elena Gherman is a highly skilled and knowledgeable animal care expert. At the start of her career, she gained practical expertise with multiple animals. In addition to that, she works as a DVM veterinary editor for Joy Pet Products, which focuses on offering reliable information on pet health and wellbeing. She meticulously reviews each piece of writing before it is published to make sure pet owners get the most precise and updated information possible.