Saturday, December 4, 2021

The struggle is real

This week’s topic falls into the category of Things Normal People Do Not Spend Stupid Amounts of Time Obsessing About. (Which honestly could apply to a lot of things in my life.)

 Dog ears.


When I got my first sheltie, I had no idea the lengths breeders went to in pursuit of the perfect ear set. I joined the local sheltie club and watched with fascination as members used elaborate constructions of moleskin, duct tape, twine and/or fabric glue to ensure beautiful ear set and tip on their puppies. 


When they did it, it looked high and tight. When I did it, it looked like a third-grade science fair project gone bad. Jesse’s ears never stood a chance.


By Sheltie #2, I’d learned a few things. Thanks to my amateur efforts, Connor’s ears might not have been breed-ring quality but at least they tipped.


During the Belgian years, I shoved the duct tape and scissors in a drawer and breathed a sigh of relief. You don’t do anything with Belgian ears except wait for them to defy gravity, which they do on their own.

Phoenix, I miss you and your wonderful satellite dish ears.

When Banner came on the scene, ignorance was bliss. I had NO IDEA you had to mess with Aussie ears. I mean, they hang down so gravity just takes care of things, right?


His breeder gently disabused me of that notion. Aussie ears are not subject to Earth’s gravity. They will fly up, back and sideways like chickens escaping a coop unless you wrangle them into compliance.


For the exactly three non-dog people reading this, ear set in Aussies is a cosmetic concern. Having perfect ears does not ensure good health or increase their intelligence. If you do performance sports, no one cares whether your dog’s ears are set high, low or backwards. Performance trainers spend more time wondering if there’s actually anything between our dogs’ ears than how said ears are attached to their head.

Raider, 8 weeks, with perfectly perfect ears

But as a friend of mine is fond of saying, it costs just as much to feed a pretty dog as it does an ugly one and the classic “button ear” is desirable in Aussies. Some lines do this naturally while others need a little encouragement. It’s not a dramatic procedure. It’s not painful. It mostly requires long-term commitment and an unnatural dexterity with duct tape. Don’t worry. If you commit to the former, you’ll get plenty of practice with the latter.


Puppies have adorably ideal ear sets until teething starts and then their ears begin bouncing all over the place like demented squirrels. The rule of thumb is “Tape early, tape often” and like everything else when it comes to dogs, there are at least a half dozen ways to do it.

Raid, 3 months, ears still au naturale.

One breeder swears by duct tape, another uses only glue. The universal goal, no matter the method, is to pull the ear leather down and slightly forward and hold it in place in the months during and after teething while the cartilage hardens.

Simple concept, right? Sure. You just keep telling yourself that.

Ear brace? I don't need no stinkin' ear brace.

I did much better with Banner’s ears than I did with either of my Shelties. Sheltie ear contraptions are perverse things designed to make the ear leather both stand up AND tip over at the same time. The single-minded goal with Aussie ears is just to keep them down, not winging off into a twisty side-ways presentation called a “rose ear.”


This is achieved by attaching a duct tape chin strap to the inside of both ears. Simple in theory, slightly more complex in execution. While Banner was going through his ear-taping stage, my Malinois Phoenix thought this strap made a great handle to grab him with and drag him around the yard. The result was a lot of ripped out ear tapes.

Banner, too sexy for his ears since 2014.


Banner shows no interest in removing Raider’s ear tape. If asked, he would probably like to remove Raider entirely. Raid is 8 months old now, has gained a slight edge on Bann in both terms of height and weight and, not to put too fine a point on it, can be a bit of a dickhead in that charming way of adolescent males who think it’s all about them. 

Raid, 4 months, when things were starting to go awry in the ear department.
Banner is mortified.
"Put your ear down, kid. Don't you know that's not proper?"

 In spite of Raider’s damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead approach to life, he is an absolute darling about having his ears taped. This is a good thing because the process is somewhat akin to putting sandals on an octopus in the dark. We do it about once a week, when the oil in his skin loosens the moleskin and one side or another pulls out. This is heralded by him racing around the house, chomping merrily on the flapping strap.


Raider thinks ear taping falls into the same category as having his nails clipped. It’s a quick procedure, mildly annoying but painless and involves cookies. To produce lasting results, his ears need to be taped constantly until they can hang correctly on their own, and that means NOT taking a hit and miss approach when it comes to keeping his little chin strap attached. Regarding ears that go wonky after a few days of freedom, his breeder warned, “Don’t let them practice bad behavior.” 

Raid, 4-5 months.
His ears proved they COULD behave untapped, if only for brief periods of time.

I miss seeing his ears in their natural state but we’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, Raid has worn his ear braces with such consistency, I’m starting to think he looks funny when his ears AREN’T taped.


Like so many things with dogs, timing is everything. When it’s time to re-tape, I wait until after he’s had a good long training session, a good long hike in the timber and a good long four quarters of helping the Farmer watch a college basketball game. When I say, “Let’s fix your ears!” he leaps onto the grooming table and collapses in a happy, tired pile of red fur. 


With the moleskin ear pieces and duct tape chin strap cut ahead of time, I can have his ears taped in less than two minutes.


It’s is another of those life skills you can’t expect just anyone to appreciate. 

Sometimes I wonder if I should sleep with one eye open.