Many dogs like having their ears touched, although it would be important to point out that this is not a general rule of thumb.
Some dogs cringe when their ears are touched and don't want any hands near them. Others are total suckers for ear rubs and would love having theirs ear rubbed all day.
If your dog loves having his ears touched, you may be wondering why he moans and groans and closes his eyes with a delighted expression on his face.
What's so special about those ears? Turns out, a dog's ears are heavily innervated, and therefore, extra sensitive to touch.
A Matter of Nerves
A little lesson in dog anatomy can provide an insight into dog ears and why dogs like to have their ears rubbed. Dog ears are composed by three main parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear.
The middle ear is composed by the dog's eardrum and several small bones (ossicles) which are known to pick up vibrations that stimulate certain nerves responsible for relaying messages to the brain.
The inner ear allows hearing and balance. It is is composed by the cochlea (which contains nerves that allow hearing) the vestibule (which contains special receptors for balance) and the semicircular canals (which contain small stones known as otoliths which move with gravity and relay messages through nerves to the brain).
The outer ear comprises the visible part of the dog's ear along with the ear canal that leads to the eardrum. The main function of the other ear is to collect sound.
The part of the ear that is covered with skin and fur, and that is at most interest to us, as it's the ear part that dogs love rubbed, is instead known as the "pinna" or "auricle."
Interestingly, according to American Kennel Club Gazette, "the ears of a dog contain one of the highest concentrations of nerve endings in its entire body."
''The only other places that are nearly as sensitive are their bellies, and the nooks between their toes," points out veterinarian Dr. Christine Makowski in the book "The Secret Lives of Dogs."
With lots of nerve endings in the ears, it therefore makes sense why dogs like to have their ears rubbed!
"Dogs probably like their ears rubbed because neurologically speaking, gentle massage in these areas are relaxing. The vagus nerve serves a large part of the midportion of the ear, and stimulating this nerve is calming because it controls vegetative, restorative functions. This calming effect also counteracts the fight and flight response associated with the sympathetic nervous system. ~ Marty Becker, D.V.M., Gina Spadafori
Did you know? Dogs boast a variety of ear shapes. Many dog breeds have floppy ears, while others have naturally erect ears and some other dog breeds have their ears cropped. There are many interesting ear shapes in dogs!
A Calming Effect
If your dog is closing his eyes and almost falling asleep when you rub his ears, you aren't imagining things. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the ears offer an entire map of all of the acupuncture points found in the entire body.
This discovery is thanks to Dr. Paul Nogier who revealed that every point on the ear corresponds to a well defined part of the body.
It is thanks to this discovery that auriculotherapy, also known as ear acupuncture, is practiced nowadays by several thousands of medical doctors.
Indeed, it's not a coincidence that nowadays acupuncture and acupressure practitioners focus a whole lot on putting pressure on the ears. Pressure on the ears sends nerve impulses right through the body.
What does this mean for the dog owner? It means that by rubbing your dog's ears, you can actually stimulate all of the organs in the body. And the good news is that you do not need to be an expert in the field – all you need to do is give your dog a nice ear massage.
Release of Feel Good Hormones
Even if you are that great in delivering ear massages, you can at least console yourself knowing that by petting your dog and massaging those ears, your dog will likely reap the benefits of feel-good hormones.
In this case, we're talking about endorphins. Endorphins are natural chemicals that are produced by the body. One of their primary purposes is to fight the sensation of pain, but on top of attenuating the perception of pain, endorphins lead to a sensation of euphoria and happiness.
When the endorphin levels are high, indeed, there is an enhancement of the immune system's response and fewer negative effects of stress.
Just to get an idea of the effect endorphins have on the body, think of the last time you ate a bar of dark chocolate.
Chocolate increases the secretion of endorphins which explains why your get a rush of comforting feelings. This explains why many people crave chocolate in times of stress, explains Dr. Melissa Conrad Stoppler in an article for MedicineNet.
Of course, due to the fact that dark chocolate is toxic to dogs, dogs won't get to enjoy this endorphin fix, but there are other ways dogs can get their slice of feel-good chemicals, a nice ear massage being one of them.
"Applying the correct form of touch will immediately induce the release of hormones known as endorphins. These hormones promote a feeling of well-being," points out Julia Robertson, a specialist in Canine Myotherapy (that's massage for dogs!) in her book: "The Complete Dog Massage Manual, Gentle Dog Care."
Mutual Benefits of Oxytocin
On top of releasing endorphins, the act of petting and massaging your dog offers a mutual perk, (that means it goes both ways). In this case, we're talking about oxytocin.
No, oxytoxin is not a type of pain-relieving drug nor is it a type of carpet cleaner. We're talking here about the "love hormone."
Oxytocin is a potent hormone and a neurotransmitter that is produced in the hypothalamus. While it's often associated with child birth and nursing, oxytocin is also released during bonding behavior, social recognition, and during the initial stages of a romantic attachment.
According to studies, oxytocin release may also occur in the interaction between humans and dogs where petting and stroking the dog is involved, with the increasing levels of oxytocin occurring in both owners and dogs.
A Hard to Reach Spot
Let's face it: from a dog's perspective, scratching the ears is not a walk in the park. First, in order for dogs to scratch their ears, they must sit, bring their rear leg forward and with their paw strategically placed nearby the itchy area, they must move their leg in a rhythmic motion.
When we watch our dogs scratch their ears, we can detect the effort. Many times, the dog has to adjust his leg in order to reach the right area.
If the dog has long nails, the dog needs to also be careful not to injure the delicate skin. Some dogs whimper or yelp in pain, if they aren't too careful.
With us humans being dexterous and having a more delicate touch, our dogs are likely grateful for the ear scratches, and on top of that, they likely enjoy the bonus of receiving our affection and attention!
Can Dogs Get High When You Rub their Ears?
Unless your dog is on weed, dogs don't get high from just the mere act of rubbing their ears. However, they may relax enough to fall into a sort of "relaxed trance" where they close their eyes and almost fall asleep. Some dogs will also moan or groan while their ears are rubbed.
Should You Rub a Dogs Ears?
Vigorous rubbing can be a bit too much for some dogs compared to a gentle massage, so you'll need to gauge how your dog responds to it.
Most dogs seem to do well with a gentle ear flap massage or gentle scratching behind the ears. How should you massage your dog's ears?
Here are a few tips. Don't pull your dog's ears, but rather pick up each ear and gently apply some slow friction strokes, suggest Joan Budilovsky and Eve Adamson, inthe book "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Massage."
Does My Dog Like it When I Rub His Ears?
Until the day dogs can speak, we may never know exactly what goes though their minds, but here's a little consent test I personally use with my clients when they ask me whether their dogs love being petted and the whole interaction:
"Does he ask for more when you stop? Then most likely he's enjoying the interaction. Does he seem like he exhales a sight of relief? Then, your dog may be saying " please, no more!"
So what if your dog doesn't like to have his ears touched? If your dog used to love having his ears rubbed but now suddenly, out of the blue, dreads it, this should raise a red flag. Perhaps, it's time to see the vet.
Dogs, unlike humans, have ear canals that make several sharp turns. While in humans the ear canal is pretty much straight, in dogs it's shaped like the letter "L" which predisposed them to annoying and very painful ear infections.
If your dog, on the other hand, never liked having his ears touched, then it might be a good idea to just respect that and pet him in the areas he has demonstrated to to appreciate having touched in the past.
The Importance of Early Acclimation
With puppies, you may want them to get accustomed to having their ears touched from an early age. This is important, especially considering the chances that one day you may need to medicate your dog's ears or place ear drops in them.
Good puppy classes provide guidance to dog owners on how to habituate puppies to being handled. This is especially true for dogs breeds who have their ears cropped.
While the procedure is done under general anesthesia when the puppies are just a few weeks old, recovery times may be tough at times especially considering that ear cropping often coincides with a puppy's fear period.
It's certainly not a horrible experience, but it's true that it may have an impact in a sensitive pup and lead to a reluctance to having its ears touched!
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs have many good reasons for loving having their ears rubbed. So if your dog loves having his ears rubbed, go ahead and give your dog a nice ear massage. The benefits are twofold, affecting both yourself and your dog.
"Your touch relaxes the animal and releases feel-good endorphins in you, reducing your heart rate." points out Arden Moore in an article for Today.