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Beyond Hearing: Unique Properties of Dog Ears

By Barbara Denzer, Cardinal Pet Care, Vice President, Marketing
 

Do you call to students in class? Use a dog whistle? Or maybe a clicker? Most any sound will draw attention because canines’ amazing sense of hearing has ours beat, paws down. However, not all ears are created equal—their shape can affect hearing distance, and those floppy receivers might have been uniquely bred for more than listening.

 

It’s well known that a dog’s hearing far surpasses our own—capable of picking up a range of 40 to 60,000 hertz, while humans can only discern about 20 to 20,000 hertz. Our canine companions are also equipped with 18 or more ear muscles to help lift, tilt and hone in on sounds, often without turning their heads. This movement allows them to pinpoint quickly and accurately the direction a sound is coming from—and conveys emotional responses.

 

All dogs have the same basic ear structure but the size, shape and placement varies considerably among breeds. This is because many of the different ear shapes were intentionally bred for a desired look or specific purpose related to the breed’s job.

 

Knowing the origins and functionality of a dog’s ears can provide clues about his temperament, personality and other traits that can have value in a training environment. Observing a dog’s ears can also provide insight into his current emotional state, since ears are strong communicators of canine body language.

 

Ear Shape

Although they can be broken down further, here are some of the main categories of canine ears, how they came about and the functions they serve—beyond hearing.

 

Prick Ears (Upright)

Upright ears (often referred to as prick ears) are the most “wolf-like,” found on the oldest, original Nordic dogs. German shepherds, Westies, Samoyeds and Chow Chows are among the breeds with prick ears. Their upturned, pointed shape makes them especially good for capturing sounds. Oversized upright ears, especially those shaped to funnel in sound, are the most receptive to distant noises.

 

Many breeds with prick ears can rotate these pointed receptors in the direction of a sound without moving their heads. This not only sharpens their sense of hearing, but the wide motion range makes these breeds extremely adept at conveying “body language” through their ears.

 

Semi-Erect or Button

A modification of prick ears, semi-erect or cocked ears grow upward from atop or toward the side of a dog’s head, then fold over forward. Some fold just at the tip and others fall low enough to cover the dog’s inner ear. While they might not trap distant sounds as effectively as prick ears, they still capture a full range of frequencies.

 

Button ears fold over more than halfway to protect the inner ear of small dogs bred to hunt in tunnels. Their unique shape is a product of selective breeding seen mostly in small terriers such as the Jack Russell or Fox Terrier. When this type of ear is found on a mixed breed, it could indicate the dog has the high energy, determination, intelligence, independent-mindedness and other personality traits typically found in small burrowing dogs—something to keep in mind during training.

 

Rose Shaped

Rose-shaped are upright ears that fall to the side, resembling a distinctive flower form. Greyhounds, whippets, bulldogs and pugs all have these ears.

 

Interestingly, this shape formation came about for two very different reasons. Dogs originally developed for fighting, such as Bulldogs and Bull Terriers, were bred with ears set high but laid far back on the head—where they’re safer from dog bites.

  
Greyhounds and Whippets, on the other hand, have an even farther back placement to streamline their heads, making them faster when they run. Looking at not only the rose shape, but also at where the ear itself is placed, helps determine what function the dog was originally bred for—and the personality traits that go along with it.

 

Drop Ears 

Drop or floppy ears fall downward from where they connect to a dog’s head. Although their placement varies, they can attach anywhere below the top of the scull and are generally set lower on the head.

 

Floppy ears don’t pick up distant sounds as well as their upright or semi-upright counterparts. This is no accident; they’re often found on hunting dogs, which have been required to rely more on their sense of smell without the distraction of sounds. It’s a good bet, then, that dogs with these ears will be more scent-driven than your erect-eared students.

 

Within the floppy-ear category, there are numerous shape variations. Blood  Hounds and Field Spaniels have low drop ears that crease and fold like curtains, earning them the name of folded ears. Triangular-shaped lobes such as those on Vizslas and Bullmastiffs are also called V-shaped ears.

 

Whatever embodiment they take, drop ears don’t allow for the same easy movement as upright ones and therefore may not convey a mood as clearly. Canines that fall into the floppy category could be among the most difficult of your students to “read” via their ears.

 

Body Language (Reading a Dog’s Ear Motions)

The wider or more obvious a dog’s range of ear motion, the more can be deduced about his “ear-motional” state. Canine behavioral experts generally agree that when a dog holds his ears in their natural position, he is feeling relaxed and comfortable. If a dog becomes alert, he will raise his ears higher on his head and direct them toward the object of his interest. Raised ears, especially those tilted forward, can also indicate that a canine is feeling aggressive. 

 

Conversely, ears pulled backward slightly are often a gesture of friendliness. However, if the ears are completely flattened or stuck out to the sides, take heed—this can be a sign that the dog is anxious, frightened or angry.

 

Monitoring your four-legged students’ ear posture during class can help make training go more smoothly. Canines who are nervous or agitated (with ears back) will not be able to focus on lessons until they’re put at ease (perhaps they’re too close to another dog or human that makes them uncomfortable). When a dog’s ears are upright and facing you, congratulations—you’ve earned their undivided attention. Take advantage while your student is eager and ready to learn.

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