Guild of Shepherds & Collies

The Ears Are On It

dog ears

When it comes to herding breed dogs, ear shape and placement can vary dramatically. What does not vary, however, is how those ears are tuned-in to each and every sound that might affect their flock – including their “human” flock. Just ask any teenager who hopes to sneak back into the house ten minutes late for curfew!

The reality is that herding dogs not only work to guide and manage their flocks but also to help keep them safe. An alarming bark from an alert Sheltie can send many predators on their way if he hears something moving in the bushes. Herding dogs also need those great ears for catching commands and whistles when they are at a distance from their handlers. It should be noted that most cases of “selective deafness” are just that – a herding dog feeling  the handler is wrong and simply ignoring a command.

Ear shape varies from the erect, radar ears of a Belgian Malinois to the fuzzy ears of an Old English Sheepdog that are held down next to the head. Somewhere between the prick-style ears and hanging ears comes the  rose-style ears and tipped ears. No matter what shape, amount of hair or exact placement they have, those herding dog ears are alert and always on duty.

Dogs can hear much higher frequencies than people. The average human hears from 64 to 23,000 Hz, whereas the average dog hears from 67 – 45,000 Hz. Different ranges are given from different studies. Dogs are also much better than people at locating where sounds originate. Canine ears have many muscles that allow the ears to swivel and turn to amplify sounds. Watch a Malinois use his ears – it is almost like a rotating radar.

Sadly, deafness does occur in many herding breeds. In these breeds, deafness is generally related to color, especially the presence or absence of pigment cells in the inner ear. These cells take vibrations from sounds and help turn them into signals for the brain’s auditory centers. This is a congenital deafness – meaning present right from birth.

Genetic factors, such as coat color, are usually involved. For example, Australian Shepherds with too much white on the head and ears, or with markings of a double merle breeding, will often be deaf. Deafness can be in just one ear or in both. Many herding breeds have problems with deafness.

Deafness can also occur with age changes in the inner ear, chronic ear infections damaging the delicate structures of the inner ear or any trauma to the ear. With age changes, most herding dogs can still pick up a sharp whistle or a hard clap after they have trouble with voices. Once lost, though, hearing is not usually recovered.

Deafness can be definitively diagnosed through doing a BAER test. This is Brainstem Audio Evoked Response test. This requires special equipment but is offered at most veterinary colleges and some specialty clinics. Many multi health clinics at dog show events will offer BAER testing.

The BAER test uses carefully placed electrodes to record responses to clicks made via computer into soft earphone inserts. Most dogs handle this all quite well and no sedation is used. Both ears are tested individually. Results can be recorded through the OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals).

Louisiana State University is known for its work on deafness in animals. They have a comprehensive list of breeds in which deafness has been detected. This list does not indicate prevalence, however. For example, Belgian Tervuren are on the list, but very few congenitally deaf Belgians have ever been identified. This is in contrast to breeds like Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, Australian Cattle Dogs and Catahoula Leopard Dogs, which have a higher incidence of deafness.

Other health problems can show up in canine ears. Breeds with drop ears, especially if they have a lot of hair, tend to be prone to ear infections – bacterial, yeast or mites. Herding dogs with prick ears have more problems with fly bites.

Ear problems will show up in a prick-eared dog by the dog carrying the ears off to the side or down. Ear problems are painful and many normally steady dogs will pull away or even give a warning snap if they have an ear infection. Ear problems justify a visit to your veterinarian. If there is any discharge, a swab will be used to collect material for a microscopic exam. Yeast, bacteria and mites can be identified that way. A culture might be recommended if your dog has recurrent bacterial infections.

Treatment consists of an ear wash and then appropriate topical medication to deal with the pathogen. Apply the drops or ointment as directed, and then gently massage the ear. In some cases, oral medication may be prescribed as well. Regular infections are not contagious but ear mites are. You may need to treat all your dogs, and any cats or pet rabbits you own ,as well.

No matter what shape, color or fur covering your herding dog’s ears have, they are important to his health and working ability. Be sure to check ears at least weekly – more frequently if you notice your dog shaking his head, having a head tilt or having an odor from the ears. As for “selective deafness”, you may simply need to train harder/better!


Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute - Ears FAQ

Louisiana State University - Deafness in Dogs & Cats

Article By:
Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
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