When you first lay eyes on your new puppy, you might feel like you could die from the adorableness. For the next few weeks, everyone that comes over and visits will have similar reactions, falling all over themselves and showering your drowsy little guy with kisses and love. You will feel proud, because the puppy will be yours to care for, and will be your companion and friend for years to come.
There will be many unbelievably heartwarming faces that your dog will make at you, and among them is the one-ear-up head tilt. This expression—one ear standing at attention while the other lies flat or drooping to the side—is usually associated with curiosity or a quizzical expression. Here are several other explanations for this one-eared stare, and how best to interpret your dog’s ear-based body language.
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs communicate with a wide variety of body language, utilizing everything from their tail and their mouth, to their posture and positioning. Ears are included in almost everything that dog wants to communicate about itself, including happiness, fear, anxiety, aggression, and submission. You can probably tell a lot about a dog’s attitude by its body language as a whole since dogs rarely speak with only one bodily faculty, but there are some behaviors that remain elusive. This is because a lot of dog body language is able to incorporate more than one idea through separate, distinct actions. The classic example of this is the one-eared, cockeyed look. One ear is pinned against the head, while the other is straight up and alert.
Over a dozen different muscles control a dog’s ears, which are shaped by skin-covered stretches of cartilage called the pinnae. The pinnae allow a dog’s ears to move independently of one another, which allows them to multitask as they decipher sounds coming from different directions. The muscles, or sometimes the entire dog, shift the ear to receive sound. You might cup your ear towards a sound to hear it better, too! Generally, upright ears signify that your dog is listening either to you or something else and that it is alert. When a dog’s ears are pinned back, the general translation is fear or intimidation. In combination, these two actions generally represent a cautious curiosity, although there are often other reasons for this iconic look.
The one-eared look is more often recorded in puppies than in adults. One reason outside of body language for only one ear being propped up is an underdeveloped pinna. It takes time for the pinnae to grow strong enough to prop up the ear, and a dog’s pinnae might not grow equally. It is possible that one of your dog’s pinna has not yet fully developed. In this case, though your dog might be trying to raise up both ears, only one is able to stand up on its own. The amount of time that it takes for pinnae to fully develop is drastically different across various dog breeds and can take anywhere from 8 weeks to several months.
Encouraging the Behavior
If you are getting the one-eyed, cockeyed stare often from your young pup, there is most likely nothing to worry about yet. It is an incredibly enjoyable behavior that most dogs will grow out of, just like their teething phase. In order to have a general understanding of when your dog’s pinnae will fully develop, it may be beneficial to seek out a breeder. Each breed has a different timetable for when the pinnae should develop enough for the ears to stand, and this can also be affected by some genetic tendencies of the parents if such information is available. In general, smaller dogs with smaller heads and smaller ears will develop their pinnae much faster than large dogs. There are also several breeds, such as the Basset Hound, whose ears will never stand up straight.
As time passes, monitor your dog’s ears and general behavior to get a good sense of your dog’s health. In many cases, if your dog is experiencing ear pain, it will keep that ear flat against its head as frequently as possible. This is an instinctual and protective behavior and can occur if your dog is having ear problems. Irritating infections, parasites, and foreign objects in the ear can cause your dog to plaster one ear to its head, even while the other is pain-free and allowed to continue scanning. In some cases, the pain will be obvious and accompanied by other behaviors. Sometimes, it may be only a flattened ear. In either case, you should take your dog to a veterinarian to see what the best course of action is before the problem is allowed to escalate into a greater complication.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Recently, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has spoken out against ear-cropping, a practice of cutting a dog’s ears with scissors and altering them so that naturally droopy ears stand up straight. Dogs who have their ears cropped typically must go through an extended period of discomfort while their ears heal into the desired shape, and there are several risks associated with the surgery. In almost all cases, the intention behind ear-cropping is purely fashion, and many veterinarian associations beyond the AVMA denounce the practice as an unnecessarily painful procedure. There is no evidence to support that a dog’s natural ears are in any way inferior to any modification or altercation that could be performed, leading most to conclude that natural ears are best.
No one can deny that the one-eared look is adorable. If your dog went through a one-ear phase, you probably have hundreds of photos saved from every day that your dog stared up at you. The best course of action is to enjoy it while it lasts, and to always watch to make sure that your dog is healthy and happy.