By Sarah Mervosh
Hundreds of dogs report for duty at airports across the country, trained to sniff out bombs and other explosives for the Transportation Security Administration.
Many have ears that hang low, delightfully dangling around their faces. Some have ears that stand tall and upright, flickering at every sound. All have ears that are, of course, adorable — a 12 out of 10, if you will.
But the TSA has made it clear that it has a preference. The agency said it favors floppy-eared dogs over pointy-eared dogs, especially in the jobs that require interacting with traveling passengers, because floppy-eared dogs appear friendlier and less aggressive.
“It presents just a little bit less of a concern,” the TSA administrator, David Pekoske, said last month during an event at Washington Dulles International Airport. “Doesn’t scare children.”
We know there are very important things going on at the TSA, like the fact that employees have been working without pay during the government shutdown. But the internet is nothing if not a vortex of outrage and animal content, so here we are, ready to discuss the shape and elasticity of dog ears.
About 70 percent of dogs in the TSA’s canine program have floppy ears, including Labrador retrievers, German shorthaired pointers and Vizslas. Among dogs that screen and interact directly with passengers, nearly all are floppy-eared because those dogs are generally seen as “friendly” and “good with all ages of people,” said Chris Shelton, who manages the agency’s Canine Training Center.
The TSA also uses some pointy-eared dogs, like Belgian Malinois and German shepherds. Although the agency said it was confident those dogs could do the job, too, some dog lovers did not take kindly to the TSA’s stance. “Seriously, TSA?” one person wrote on Twitter, posting a photo of a pointy-eared dog named Indiana Bones with his toys. “The only things that should fear Indiana Bones and his pointy ears are stuffed hedgehogs and tacos.”
But is the TSA right about floppy ears? Sort of.
There is a scientific explanation for why humans associate floppy ears with friendly animal behavior.
Animals that were domesticated by humans tend to have certain characteristics in common: curvier tails and more juvenile facial features than their wild ancestors — and floppier ears, said Lee Dugatkin, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Louisville.
Take the domestication of wild foxes as an example. In the late 1950s, a scientist in Russia named Dmitri K. Belyaev began an experiment, which is still ongoing, to replicate the process of domestication in real time, selecting silver foxes for breeding based on one characteristic: their calmness and friendliness toward humans.
Within about five generations, the foxes, which are in the canine family, began to act more domesticated, wagging their tails and licking people’s hands. After about 10 generations, they started to develop floppy ears, Dugatkin said.
“The floppy ears, the curly tails and so on, all of those somehow came along for the ride when you choose only based on behavior,” said Dugatkin, co-author of the book “How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)” with Lyudmila Trut, a Russian researcher who has led the silver fox experiment for the past 60 years.
Researchers have discovered that animals that are calmer and friendlier also have fewer neural crest cells, a type of stem cell that can grow to form other types of cells, including cartilage, Dugatkin said. “When that manifests itself in ears,” he said, “you have ears that don’t stand up as straight because they don’t have as much cartilage.”
So in an evolutionary sense, the TSA is correct: “People inherently think of these droopy ears as a more juvenilized, friendly kind of trait,” Dugatkin said.
But in practice, you can’t assess a dog’s personality simply based on its breed or ear type.
“Every dog is different,” said Christa Chadwick, vice president of shelter services for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “We don’t make any assumptions around breed tendencies. We really get to know the individual.”
Gary Szymczak, president of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, said the breed is highly intelligent, trainable and not innately dangerous. “I’ve got pictures of my grandchildren when they were less than a year old in a crate with a German shepherd.”
“It’s not the shape of the ears,” he added. “It’s what’s between the ears that counts.”