Floppy ears in dogs are a recipe for disaster

All our gundog breeds have floppy ears though, of course, some are a great deal floppier than others. Labrador ears may turn downwards, but they are functional and only covered in short hair, which might explain why ears are one of the areas of least concern with the breed (don’t mention hips or elbows). It is the spaniels and setters that have the longest, floppiest ears, a trait that has been exaggerated by the demands of the show ring. What’s more, the ears don’t just flop but the leathers (flaps) are also covered with fur, or what technically is called “feather”.

The outside of these heavy, furry ears not only picks up burrs and cleavers like iron filings to a magnet, but also prevents air getting to the ear canal itself, a recipe for disaster. It is no wonder that these breeds have ear problems, without even considering the effect of skin allergies. Dogs simply shouldn’t have ears like that.

 

Reasons why dogs are bred with floppy ears

Why, then, have we bred them like this? It’s a question that zoologist Desmond Morris answers in his book Dogwatching. First, he suggests that with the hunting breeds, such as spaniels, floppy ears were favoured because these dogs were developed to hunt by scent. Prick ears are much better for locating the precise direction of a sound, so a dog with flop ears was less likely to be distracted by irrelevant sounds in the distance.

Second, he argues that a major attraction of flop ears is the more submissive look they give the dog. Floppy ears are only present in wild dogs when they are very young, but by breeding for flop ears, dogs end up with a juvenile characteristic into their adult life.

I’m sure he is right, for the submissive look of a spaniel is one of its attractions. Replace a spaniel’s floppy ears with a pair of pricked ears, as on an elkhound or German shepherd dog, and the result wouldn’t be nearly as appealing, though it might be a great deal more functional. Lastly, Mr Morris suggests that “very long, drooping ears look superficially like the hanging locks of human hairstyles”, making the dog appear more human-like and attractive to its owner. I’d never thought of that.