Our dog is a little breed (boston terrier), 12 weeks old.

She has been diagnosed with ear infection, and prescribed an ear medicine, witch has to be applied directly in the ear, twice a day.

First thing we're having trouble with is how hard it is for her when we apply the medicine. We can hold her, but it's almost unbearable how she struggles. We even come close to hurting her while doing it.

Since it must be applied twice a day, it's really hard to take her to the vet. We will do it if necessary. But another problem is that we might be reducing physical (by having the vet do it) risk but increasing emotional distress (trip+vet+stress).

How would you proceed in this situation? We'll do what is necessary, but we want to be dead sure what is best.

  • I could tell you how I've done this sort of thing with cats --bribery/training, plus having established in play that it's ok if I poke at ticklish areas, so they aren't so weirded out when I have to do so medically. The latter is a longer-term issue, basically building trust. For now, "do this and you get treats and approval" combined with finding a better way to immobilize her may be best you can do. Also, stay as calm as you can; if you're spooked, they will spook.
    – keshlam
    May 29, 2015 at 3:59

2 Answers 2


Your question stresses how important it is to habituate dogs to be manipulated in different ways. It is important to start with young puppies and continue playing this "game" as they grow up.

By manipulation I mean

  • being lifted off the ground
  • ears touching
  • gentle "eye cleaning" (this should be done very cautiously even if your dog is OK with it)
  • touching, moving his paws

That's something that should be done everyday or even multiple times a day, often people realise the importance of it when it is really needed (visit to the vet, injury, etc.).

Habituation has a specific "scientific" meaning: habituation is the decrease of a response to a given stimulus, or equivalently, a response that stays constant while the stimulus is gradually and slowly increased.

So habituation is passive and will develop over time. Concerning your dog's ears, that means that if you touch (first with one finger, then after some days with 2 fingers, etc. and finally holding the ear in your hand) his ears while petting him, if you start with something that doesn't provoque a strong reaction (otherwise it means you went to fast) your dog will habituate and you'll be able to progress over time.

Of course in your case that would be too slow and you need to take active steps.

That other process is counter-conditioning: classical conditioning is the association of a given stimulus to a innate rewarding experience (that's a experience that the dog finds rewarding without being trained: food, social contact, etc.). Your dog considers ears touches as a negative experience. You need to (classical) counter-condition him to eventually associate ears touches with a rewarding experience.

Here are a key points to do that properly:

  • actively practice that exercice before your dog associates it with a negative experience too strongly (that means everyone should do it before it is really needed)
  • start with something your dog is confortable with, don't rush it: in your case that might mean that you have to start by just petting his head
  • reward him in the following way: first give him a treat as you're touching him, then treat him after touching, when is confortable being touched in a given way and expects the treat move slowly to harder steps, again treating as you're touching his hears then treating after

The last point is the most essential ingredient of classical conditioning: the stimulus (touching his ears) has to become the predictor of the reward. That means it has to be given first and the reward has to come after.

Treating as you touch serves to habituate the dog, then treating after serves to condition the dog that having his ears touched is a wonderful experience.

I have to admit that although it sounds great on paper, it is a slow process, especially if the dog already had a chance to learn non-rewarding / negative experiences.

In the short-term your best option is to try to make it has positive as possible: immobilise him "strongly", so you can be faster, treat him before and after, or during if you can have someone else's help. Vets are usually doing such things with a lot of confidence, calm and rapidity.


@Cedric's answer is good for when you have time to train your dog to let you do those things, and you definitely should work with dogs while they aren't sick so when they are, giving them medicine is easy, but sometimes we don't have that luxury. If a dog needs medicine NOW, then here is what worked for us and a dog who was super sweet but in so much pain that he would snap at anything that came close to his ear (i.e. the medicine).

  1. The key is to move as fast as possible. Get everything ready (in another room if you have to) so the dog doesn't know what's coming. You want to get that syringe in her ear, medicine dispensed, and a big pile of treats in front of her in less than 1 second.

  2. Get a muzzle if you have to. We got one of the mesh ones and gave the dog treats every time it went on. Practice putting it on at other times during the day too so she doesn't associate it with the medicine. This will make things easier and safer for both of you.

  3. Cover the dog's eyes / come in from behind, assuming the dog is ok with this. Again, this is to help make the actual administering of medicine (the part that actually hurts) as quick as possible. The dog will quickly associate the meds with pain and you don't want that.

  4. If you can, pull the ear back before hand and sit on the dog so she can't move. Yes this is uncomfortable for the dog, but you want to minimize pain and you can get that medicine in a lot quicker if the dog can't move her head.

  5. Finally, give tons of treats. Even better is if you feed them their meal right afterwards, maybe with some yummy extras. This probably won't make the dog happy about getting the medicine, but it will at least help her understand that you're not all bad. Give them during the process to distract and even more afterwards.

If you've ever had an ear infection, you know how ridiculously painful they can be. Now remember that you have no way of telling the dog that this medicine is the only way to help. All the dog knows is when someone brings this syringe looking thing close to my ear it hurts a lot.

If the dog snaps, know that it's most likely only because she's in a lot of pain and it's the only thing she knows how to do. This doesn't mean your dog is aggressive or bad. Once the medicine starts working, the pain will go down and administering it will become easier. You'll probably see a big improvement in your dog's overall temperament within a few days.

  • It helps when doing this type of thing, especially with a small dog, to sit on the couch, and put them butt first between your legs and squeeze gently. This takes three directions of wiggle away from your dog. If he's not a snappy dog you can hold his head in your non-dominant hand like a softball and apply the medicine with the other. I got eye drops into a pom this way in about 30sec after 4 other people had being going at him and failing for about 5 min, because they were pussyfooting around. The only issue to worry about is if he's snappy, because it'll be hard to hold onto a snub nose.
    – Dalton
    May 29, 2015 at 17:57

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