Why Do Dogs Bite Each Other’s Ears? (Trainer Explains)

Why Do Dogs Bite Each Other's Ears

Most owners love watching their dog play with their friends. Games of tag, hide and seek, and wrestling sessions are usually the top choices for doggy games. But some owners might notice that their pup is playing a little rougher than some other dogs, especially when seemingly aggressive things like body slams, growling, and ear biting are occurring.

Ear biting in particular can be a cause of concern for dog owners due to a dog’s ears being relatively sensitive and thin-skinned. But what does it mean when a dog bites another dog’s ear?

Dogs may bite another dog’s ears accidentally or purposefully during rough play sessions, to correct unwanted behaviors, or as a warning signal. It is usually seen during play between both puppies and grown dogs and is normal play behavior provided both dogs have similar play styles and good bite inhibition.

While ear biting is a normal behavior in many dogs, there are certain situations in which it is not acceptable behavior. In the article below, we’ll look at the reasons behind why a dog may bite another dog’s ears, and when it is OK and not OK for them to engage in ear biting.

We’ll also discuss some tips to stop ear biting if you have a dog who has poor bite inhibition or social skills, and what you can do to help keep the play sessions fun and safe for everyone involved.

Why Do Dogs Bite Each Other’s Ears?

Dogs may bite each other’s ears for a variety of reasons, and the use of their mouth is one of the ways in which dogs can communicate with each other. Sometimes the biting is part of play and other times it is a serious warning to another dog.

While it is a normal part of dog behavior, whether or not a dog is prone to biting another dog’s ears can also depend on their individual personality, breed traits, and socialization history.

Puppies and mother dogs may also bite ears for reasons different than a typical adult dog. Some of the most common reasons for ear biting are listed below, but depending on the dogs involved and the situation in which the ear biting is occurring other possibilities may also exist.

Reason #1: Play Behavior

The most likely reason your pup is biting at another dog’s ears is because it’s part of their normal play behavior. Just like with people, individual dogs can have their own play styles.

For some dogs, this rougher type of play behavior is normal for the breed. Some dogs are more sensitive and don’t like physical contact as much, whereas other breeds (like the Boxer or Siberian Husky) tend to enjoy body slamming and wrestling matches.

Dogs with poor socialization history and play skill deficits may also bite at the ears, but these dogs also usually have poor bite inhibition. Dogs with good bite inhibition may grasp and hold the ear, but no damage will occur because they are able to control how much pressure they are exerting.

Injuries may only occur if either dog suddenly moves in another direction and the dog who is latched on may not let go in time to keep up with the movement. Dogs with poor bite inhibition will almost always apply too much pressure and may be unable to properly read the signals the other dog is giving, thus resulting in a scuffle or injury.

Dogs may also bite at another dog’s ears as a sign of affection for the other dog, as an act of mutual grooming, or as a coping mechanism if the biter is an anxious dog.

In the video below, it’s likely that this is an act of mutual grooming and affection for the other dog, but the biting dog is also displaying some minor stressed body language so it could also be a side effect of the anxiety and uncertainty they feel.

Reason #2: Normal Puppy Behavior

During their critical socialization period, puppies often use their mouths for a lot of things, and this includes biting their littermates. Ears are a frequent target, but all this biting actually serves an important purpose: developing good bite inhibition!

While some breeds of dogs do have what’s referred to as a soft mouth (the best dogs have a mouth that is soft enough to carry around an egg without breaking it), most, if not all, dogs also learn bite inhibition and how much pressure to exert during puppyhood. This is why it is vitally important that puppies stay with mom and littermates until at least 8 weeks (but preferably 10 weeks).

Ears are a good way for a puppy to test their bite inhibition because they are sensitive and puppies will learn very quickly to reduce how much pressure they are using with their mouths when a littermate yelps or if their mom growls and snaps at them.

Puppy teeth are sharp, though, so if you have a litter of young puppies (or an older puppy who is still working on developing good bite inhibition) it’s important to monitor play and step in if necessary.

Reason #3: Warning Signal

For some dogs, a bite to the ear is a warning signal that they would like the other dog to back off and leave them alone.

Mother dogs might use this technique with their puppies if the puppies are getting out of hand, too. With this type of warning bite, the bite inhibition is good, and no injury should occur.

For thin-skinned breeds like Greyhounds or Whippets, accidental scratches and punctures may happen, but the purpose of this bite is as a warning or threat only, thus the dog performing the bite should release fairly quickly once they are certain their message has been received and no major injury should occur.

Reason #4: Accidental Bite

Sometimes a dog might accidentally bite another dog’s ear during a particularly rambunctious wrestling match, or they may redirect and accidentally grab a hold of another dog’s ear if they react negatively to something in their environment. Dogs may also accidentally bite another dog’s ears if they are licking the ears and switch to nibbling on them instead.

These bites are more prone to injury due to their accidental nature as it’s likely the dog wasn’t monitoring their bite pressure and so they may apply too much pressure resulting in a puncture wound or tear in the ear.

In many cases, the dog will likely release the ear as soon as they realize they’ve grabbed onto it and the receiving dog cries out.

In cases of redirected aggression where a dog is reacting to an environmental trigger, they might not be as quick to release, and the situation may escalate depending on the situation and the receiving dog’s reaction.

Reason #5: Purposeful Bite

In some cases, a dog biting another dog’s ear is done with aggressive intention, either due to ritualized aggression or an actual intent to harm the other dog.

Ears are often easy to grab and if you have two dogs of similar sizes, the ears are usually right at mouth height. When a dog bites another dog’s ears with the intent to do damage, it’s likely the bite will be hard, and the receiver will either try to get away or will retaliate in some way to try to defend themselves.

The dog who is biting might not want to release the ear, which can result in serious injury.

Dogs with poor socialization history, play skill deficits, or a history of aggression and/or reactivity may be more prone to this type of ear biting.

Is It Bad If My Dog Bites Another Dog’s Ears?

This depends on the reason for the biting, and if the dog being bitten is receptive to it or not.

Ears can be prone to bleeding heavily due to the proximity of the blood vessels to the skin surface, so if you have a dog with poor bite inhibition it’s best to limit any ear biting to prevent accidental injury.

If your dog has good bite inhibition, both dogs have a similar play style, and the receiver of the biting is receptive to it, then it’s probably OK to let them continue playing in that manner. If the receiver of the bites starts indicating any discomfort or tries to get away and the biter does not let go, then it is wise to step in and redirect the dogs to a different activity.

If the bite is a warning signal and the biter is showing other stress signals, it’s best to step in and separate the dogs even if the receiver backs away after getting the warning. Situations of high stress can often escalate quickly and with minimal warning, so when in doubt it’s best to step in and separate the two dogs.

How Do I Stop My Dog From Biting Another Dog’s Ears While Playing?

While most ear biting behavior is due to normal play behavior, if the receiver is not receptive to the ear biting then it’s best to try and discourage your pup from biting at another dog’s ears. To do this, you can teach your dog the “Leave It” cue.

To teach “Leave It”, you can start by placing a piece of food on the floor and then stand right next to it. As your dog attempts to pick up the piece of food, you can cover it with your foot and say “Leave It”. After your dog backs away, remove your foot and if they attempt to get the food again, repeat the “Leave It” cue and step over the treat again.

As soon as your dog does not attempt to immediately go towards the piece of food on the ground, praise and reward them with a treat from your hand before picking up the piece of food on the ground.

Alternatively, you can also hold a piece of food in the palm of your hand and hold it out to your dog. If your dog attempts to take it from your hand, quickly close your hand and say “Leave It”.

Once your dog stops immediately going towards your hand when you open it, praise and reward them with the treat. Repeat this frequently, gradually amping up the difficulty of what you are asking your dog to leave alone, and eventually, you’ll be able to utilize it when you see them attempting to bite at another dog’s ears while they are playing.

This can take some time, and it works best if you give this cue as you are seeing your pup go for the ears rather than after they are already biting at the ears of the other dog. While you are working on this training, you should keep a close eye on your pup while they are playing, and if you notice any ear biting behavior, step in and redirect the biter away from the ears.

You can also utilize “time outs” by temporarily removing the offender from play for a minute or two, and then allowing them back to play provided they don’t go straight for the ears. If they do, it’s back to time out for another minute.

Over time, they will begin to make the connection between ear biting and the time outs, and the behavior will decrease and eventually stop. This is a form of operant conditioning (negative punishment), though care should be taken on the timing of this technique so that you do not accidentally associate the wrong thing with the time out.

It’s also important to immediately let the dog go back to playing with their buddy as a reward for good behavior (and no ear biting!).

Closing Thoughts

Ear biting is normal play behavior in many dogs, though aggressive ear biting can occur in dogs who have poor socialization skills. Provided both dogs are enjoying the play session and the biter has good bite inhibition, the risk of injury is low.

Accidents can still happen, though, so if you have a dog who tends to play a little rougher it’s always a good idea to monitor playtime to ensure that everyone is having a good time.

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