As a breeder and an owner, one of the most common questions I hear is "When will my puppy's ears stand up straight?" That's not an easy question to answer.
One of the first things you need to look at are the parents' ears. Should mom and dad be able to receive Direct TV on those satellite ears of theirs? Or do they have neat, smaller ears that are closer in to their skull? Does your pup come from a line of large headed dogs with large (and heavier) ears? Is the ear leather particularly thick or thin? All of those factors affect the genetic tendency of ears to stand or droop.
The bigger the head, the larger the ear and the more chances there are for problems. Thin ear leather is lighter weight but doesn't have the "stiffness" to stand easily. If the cartilage and muscle development is good, thicker ear leather will stand firmly erect with no wobbling. And, the wider the space between the ears, the longer it will take for the ears to stand erect.
When should the ears be standing?
Every pup is different. I've had pups with ears that would never have "come up" without special help. And I've had puppies with ears standing at 4 weeks that NEVER went back down. The general rule is that if the ears are standing or have been standing by the time teething starts (between 3-5 months) they will come back up after the adult teeth are in. The body uses calcium as needed and when teeth and bone growth are developing, the calcium isn't being used for nonessentials like the cartilage at the base of the ear frame.
What can I do?
One of the most important things is to make sure that the ears have a chance to stand naturally. Although puppy ears are the softest and most delightful feeling things in the world, keep your hands off of them. Do not bend, fold or fondle the ears. Some owners feel that massaging at the base of the ears can help, but do not fold or mess with the actual ears themselves.
Offer good raw bones for chewing. The pup will ingest some natural calcium from the bone, and the chewing action will exercise the muscles at the base of the ears. All of these things will help.
Do not let the pup play with other pups or young dogs who are "ear chewers". One of the most common causes of soft ears is biting by other dogs. They use ears as chew toys and to haul each other around. Crate pups separately and don't turn them out in the yard, unsupervised, together. Put a firm stop to ear chewing when they are playing together. Offer tug ropes and toys for them to play with together, this will also help exercise those muscles.
Should I supplement?
Since calcium is one of the building blocks of cartilage growth, it stands to reason that supplementing will solve all the problems. It sounds like a good theory, but it's not. Most over-the-counter calcium supplements are NOT absorbed by the body and are a waste of money and time. With calcium that is absorbed, too much is given. Calcium will settle in joints when there is too much in the body, setting your pup up for bone spurs, arthritis and other problems when they are older. If you choose to supplement, do it very carefully.
We supplement puppies ear growth with natural calcium found in bones, with cottage cheese or natural yogurt. Only 1 Tablespoon per meal is advised with cottage cheese OR yogurt. Not both! The yogurt has the advantage of having live bacteria that is beneficial to digestion and intestinal health.
If you are supplementing with some form of calcium, be sure and also add Vitamin C. The vitamin helps move the calcium throughout the system, avoiding settling in the joints and is overall good for dog health. We start pups on 250mg of vitamin C per day (chewable children's tablet) and build up to an eventual 1000mg for adult dogs. If you notice that your dog has diarrhea, step back the dosage. Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin (unlike Vitamin E and others) and it's impossible to overdose with great damage.
We also add dry, unflavored gelatine powder (2 Tbsp) per feeding, just sprinkled over the top of the pups' food. The pups like it and I've seen it work often enough to be superstitious about it!
When should I think about taping?
If your dog comes from a line with notoriously large heads and ears, or your breeder has told you that they have had "issues" with ears standing, you might want to think about taping around the age of 5-6 months. Definitely look at taping if your pup's adult teeth are in and both ears are not making good moves towards being totally upright. Once the "fold" is set into the cartilage, it will be very hard for the ears to stand naturally.
There are several methods of taping. Some you can do at home, yourself. Others require a specialist vet. Look for a vet who had a large number of clients with Dobermans, Great Danes and Boxers. Your local, general-purpose vet is unlikely to have the particular knowledge you need.
If you do it yourself, there are many methods that people swear by. For ears that only need a small amount of help, you can glue moleskin into the interior of the ear. Or, you can take a lady's pink, sponge roller (remove the interior plastic rod) and glue that into the ear and tape the ear in position around it. Even though one ear might be standing, it's a good idea to brace and tape both ears, then take a popsicle stick or tongue depressor (cut to the appropriate length) and tape it into place as a "bridge" between the ears, to stabilize both ears. Use a glue that is gentle on the skin, a surgical glue or the adhesive used to fasten toupees to the scalp is good. False eyelash glue will NOT work. And it seemed like such a good idea, too!
Don't be afraid to use too much cloth, surgical tape on the outside of the ears. You want your tape job to last 10 - 14 days before you take it off. Do cover up the ears with plastic bags if the dog is going outside in the rain or playing on wet grass. Most dogs will forget the ears are taped within 24 hours and will quit pawing at them or trying to rub the tape off against trees, fences and grass. During the first 24 hours, supervise your dog's activity outside.
To take the tape off, soak well in a citrus based product. We use "Goo Gone" and within 15 minutes the tape has fallen away from the hair. Soak the roller with the solvent and wait a few minutes more before gently peeling the form out. There is a school of thought that says "ripping" the tape and roller out is good for the ears. It causes them to bleed, develop scabs and the scabbing will help hold the ear erect. It will also result in a pup that won't let you get near their ears again and if you have to repeat the taping process, you'll need four strong men to hold down a 40 pound puppy!
There are commercial ear forms available, some with a special "herbal" compound on the adhesive that is supposed to help the ears stand. The forms themselves are good, a good shape, a good weight, a good size. However, I've heard of at least ¾ of the users having problems with the herbal compound. Dogs have developed nasty bacterial infections and in some cases, lost portions of their ear due to necrosis. I would advise, if using a form with a herbal compound, that you scrub the adhesive off the back of the form before inserting it.
When ears are taped, it's a good idea to check them at least twice a day for both circulation or funky odors. If you suspect any problems, take the tape off and the forms out. If there are no problems, you can always re-tape.
If your dog is older (8-9 month range), your vet might suggest calcium injections directly into the cartilage before the ear is taped. He or she will inject small amounts of calcium along the "fold line" of soft ears, massage it into the ear and then tape the ears in an upright position. While this is not guaranteed, it certainly gives a better chance for older, heavier ears to stand.
My dog is over a year old, will the ears ever stand?
Probably not. And you then have the choice of adoring your floppy eared GSD or going for the last ditch treatment - the ear implant. IF you choose a surgical implant, realize that most vets will not use them on dogs that are breeding stock unless the ear was damaged by documented injury. The ear implant is a one time only procedure. They are not invulnerable to damage and if your dog breaks the ear again with the implant in, there is no repair available.
The ear implant is a thin piece of vented inert plastic, cut to the shape of the individual dog's ear. When surgically inserted underneath the skin, the blood vessels will grow through holes in the plastic, bonding the implant to the ear. As with any surgery done under general anesthesia, there is a risk involved.
Should I worry if my dogs' ears don't stand?
Although the standard for the GSD includes erect ears, no dog is less lovable because one or both ears are floppy or leaning. The only thing that I watch for is to make sure that you're careful with ear hygiene. If your dog develops a large number of yeast infections or has constantly moist inner ears, you can tape the ears up on top of the head, opening the interior up to light and air one or two times a week. Leave the ears taped up as long as your dog will tolerate it. In cases of persistent ear infections, add 1-2 Tbsp of natural, unflavored yogurt to the dog's food and also paint the interior of the ear with a thin layer of yogurt.
If your pup is currently in the floppy ear stage, enjoy it! And take lots of photos. Before long, you will have a grown dog and only happy memories of those funky "blowing in the wind" ear days!