Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

Australian Shepherd Health & Genetics Institute

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Ears FAQs


Why are some Aussies deaf? 

The most common cause of deafness in Aussies is a lack of melanocytes (pigment cells) in the inner ear.  These cells help translate air vibrations caused by sound into electrical impulses that travel to the brain.  If the cells are absent, the dog will be deaf. This is a congenital condition.

Deafness can also be acquired, due to chronic ear infections, old age, trauma, or disease but the most frequent cause of deafness in Aussies is due to pigment deficit in the ear.

Why do some Aussies not have pigment cells in the inner ear?

The lack of melanocytes is related to excessive white markings on the head.  Genes which cause white markings can impact not only the skin and hair, but any part of the body that is pigmented.  The white markings may occur because the dog is a double merle (two copies of the merle gene) or because normal white markings are overextended on the head.

 Are Aussies that are deaf double merles?

Not necessarily, but Aussies is inheriting two copies of the dominant form of the merle gene are almost always mostly white.  Double merles typically have a lot of white and eye defects.  Frequently they are deaf as well.

 Are blue eyes are related to deafness?

Blue eyes may be associated with deafness, but not always. In some breeds, like the Dalmatian, the association is high.  In Aussies it does not appear to be a significant factor.

 How can I tell if a puppy is deaf?

The most conclusive way is to have a vet BAER test her.  The test is non-invasive and isn’t too expensive.  It will tell you if he has total hearing loss in either ear.  It can be done in a small animal practice, but unless client demand for the test is high enough the clinic you use may not have it.  You may need to travel to a clinic that offers it.

If BAER testing isn’t readily available, you can do a home test that may tell you if the puppy can hear or not.  Put the puppy in a room away from other dogs.  The room or space used should offer minimal distractions.  Have someone stand on one side of the space to draw the puppy’s attention—not to get it to come, but just to get it to look toward them.  A second person should stand on the opposite side of the room.  When the puppy is looking at the first person, the second one should make a distinct noise.  A wooden spoon hitting the bottom of a pot or squeezing a loud squeaky toy should do it.  Don’t do anything really loud or scary; you don’t want to traumatize the puppy.  If she does not react at all after 2-3 tries, it is likely the puppy is deaf.

What is a BAER test?

BAER stands for Brainstem Audio Evoked Response.  This test must be done by a vet who has the proper equipment.  It will measure involuntary nerve response to an auditory signal.  It can detect whether the dog is deaf in one or both ears.

Can an Aussie be deaf in only one ear?


 How can I tell if my dog is deaf in only one ear?

If a dog is deaf in one ear only, it will have functional hearing but will have some difficulty orienting on the direction of a sound.  In time most dogs learn to compensate. If you notice that your dog has trouble locating a sound source, or turns toward an echo instead of to you when you call, it may be deaf in one ear.  You will need to have the dog BAER tested to confirm that.

 If a white spot on the ear in a deaf puppy colors in, will he get his hearing back in that ear?

No.  If the puppy is deaf in the ear that has a white spot, that will not change if the ear colors in.  Dogs can be deaf in an ear that has pigment on it, though they usually will have a lot of white on the head.  I know a dog with a half-white head who is deaf in the ear that’s on the colored side.

Is it possible to get deafness in a tri to tri cross?

Yes, particularly if a puppy has a lot of white on or close to one or both ears.

If I produce a deaf puppy, can it be placed?

Yes, but it will need someone committed to lifetime care for a special needs dog.  For an Aussie that is generally eleven years or more.

Is deafness hereditary?

In that the underlying cause of almost all deafness in Aussies is a lack of melanocytes in the inner ear and this is a result of too much white on or around the ears, a trait governed by heredity, it is inherited.  Not every dog with too much white is deaf, so there are probably additional genetic factors which determine whether the dog is deaf.  However, if breeders make efforts not to produce puppies with white on or close around the ears they can significantly reduce the frequency of deafness in the breed.  Deaf dogs, including those deaf in only one ear, should not be bred.

How can I avoid producing deaf puppies?

Don’t breed merle to merle.  Don’t breed dogs with excessive white markings.  If a dog has produced offspring that have excessive white, breed it only to mates that have less white than it does and which come from families where excessive white is uncommon or absent.

If an Aussie has prick ears is it purebred?

Probably, if it otherwise looks like an Aussie. Prick ears don’t meet the breed standards but they do sometimes happen.  Prick and high-breaking ears have always been present in the breed and some present-day working lines are prone to higher set ears than what you see in the show ring.  Smedra’s Blue Mistingo, a bitch that figures in many Flintridge pedigrees and therefore behind most, if not all, show line Aussies today, had one prick ear.  (See ASCA Yearbook 1957-1977: Twenty Years of Progress, pg. II-20, upper left.)  The trait might still be in the show lines as well, though it would be rare.

Are prick ears inherited?

Probably.  Certainly if a dog’s relatives have had prick ears.

What is the inheritance for prick ears?

The exact inheritance isn’t known and it is probable that there are differing genetic mechanisms that can determine whether ears are up or down.  In most drop-eared breeds where prick ears are occasionally seen, they seem to be recessive.  However, some erect eared breeds (the German Shepherd Dog is one example) sometimes have dogs whose ears aren’t fully erect.

What does having prick ears mean for my Aussie?

Prick ears are a major, though cosmetic, fault.  A prick-eared dog will not be able to compete in the show ring but if you are breeding stockdogs or performance event dogs there is no point in sacrificing an otherwise suitable animal over a cosmetic fault.  Dogs with prick ears or who have produced prick ears should be bred only to mates with naturally correct earsets.  If the ears have been doctored you don’t know what the natural set would have been.  It would probably also be a good idea to avoid mates with correct earsets that break high even if within the breed standard.

Will a dog that has a high earset produce high earsets 

 Possibly, depending on what genes are contributed by his mates.  The specific genetics of the various types of earsets seen in dogs have not been well studied.  However, you should treat his high earset like any other fault and make an effort to breed away from it by selecting mates with proper earsets who come from families with proper earsets.

What are “rose ears”?

This is a type of earset where the ear flap is dropped but has a fold that makes it break to the side.  This type of ear is seen in many sighthound breeds and some traditionally cropped breeds may have rose ears if the ear is left natural.  They are seen fairly frequently in working and performance Aussies.  They occur in showline dogs but are not preferred by most exhibitors.  Rose ears do meet the breed standards.

If a dog’s earset is wrong, can it be fixed?

The short answer is yes, but there are some things that need to be considered first.

Incorrect – or less preferred – earsets in Aussies are a cosmetic fault.  There is no health or soundness justification for changing them.

If the earset has been altered, particularly if it is done at a young age or done prophylactically (“just in case”) there is no way you can determine what the natural earset would have been and therefore will not know whether or not that dog will produce a correct earset or the type of earset you prefer.

Finally, artificial alterations in appearance are in violation of show rules because they are a form of cheating – changing the dog to improve its ability to win in conformation.  In practice, the authorities turn a blind eye to gluing and taping but if a surgical alteration is detected the dog could be disqualified and dismissed from the ring.

What are Aussie ears supposed to look like?

The breed standards describe a moderate sized, triangular ear with a slightly rounded tip that sits high on the head.  The ears may break forward or to the size (“rose” ear) when at attention.

The ASCA standard specifies that the tip of the ear should reach to the inner corner of the nearest eye.   The AKC standard, on which most if not all standards in other countries are based, does not specify a length though presumably “moderate size” would preclude long or tiny ears.

The ASCA standard also specifies that the ear shall break (bend) between ¼ and ½ way from the base to the tip.  The AKC standard does not specify where the ear shall break, so presumably either lower or higher breaks would be acceptable, so long as there was a break.

Both standards declare prick ears and hanging (low set, pendulous) ears to be severe faults.

In practice, show breeders have a marked preference for lower- and forward-breaking earsets and that look has become almost ubiquitous in the show ring.  Working and performance breeders aren’t as concerned about what the ear looks like as the trait is cosmetic.  You will occasionally see prick ears in working or performance dogs but pendulous ears are extremely rare, probably because the look is so atypical of an Aussie that there has been significant selection away from it over the years.

 How soon can I tell what kind of earset a puppy will have?

You will have a fair idea of what the adult earset will be by the time a puppy is a couple months old.  Drastic changes after six months are unusual.

 What does having prick ears mean for my dog?

Your dog won’t be able to be competitive in conformation because prick ears are a severe fault.  However, the fault is cosmetic and would have no impact on a dog’s success in performance events, work, or as a pet.

How common are prick ears in Aussies?

There is no good data on frequency of various types of earset in Aussies.  However, since prick ears are a severe fault breeders do not try to produce them.  As a result they are probably rare, though will be seen more frequently in some non-show lines than in the breed as a whole.

 Are prick ears inherited?

Yes, though the genes that determine earset have yet to be identified.  However, through long observation of litter results we know that prick ears are not dominant to other types of ears.  Therefore dogs with acceptable earsets may produce prick ears.

 What do prick ears mean for my breeding program?

If your breeding goals are aimed toward the show ring, you should not breed a dog with severe faults.  However, if yours is a working or performance dog and he has outstanding traits you want to preserve, you might breed him but you still need to remember that this is a severe fault and select mates with proper (natural, undoctored) earsets from families known for proper earsets.  You may also want to avoid mates with higher, but within the standard, earsets.

If a puppy’s earset isn’t right, what can I do to correct it?

Ear taping and gluing have become fairly common practice in show lines when higher earsets or rose ears are encountered; the practice is not considered to be in violation of show rules.  Surgical alterations, on the other hand, are disallowed.  However earset alteration is done, the resulting set is artificial.  When tampering with the earset becomes common it is difficult for breeders to select for correct ears because they can’t necessarily tell which ears are natural and which not.