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The eyes may be the mirror to a dog’s soul, and careful observations of both the mouth and the tail can yield all sorts of information about a dog’s intentions and emotional state — but a dog’s ears are a more complicated matter. Dog ears are more challenging to read and understand, and they usually have to be assessed in conjunction with other visual signals to make a useful interpretation. That is especially true when the dog’s ears are pulled back or held close to the head.
As a general rule, a dog’s level of attention can be determined by watching their ears: Erect ears facing forward indicate that they’re engaged, and slightly pulled-back ears signal that they’re feeling friendly; but dog ears laid tightly back against the head suggest a fearful or timid reaction.
The Emotional Signals Your Dog’s Ears Are Sending You
Dog ears that are tucked close to the head often indicate negative emotions. Here are a few common reasons why dogs pull their ears back.
One possibility is sadness, which often results in ears that are tucked down close to the sides of the head. Dogs may show this when a favorite person departs. I once saw a dog pull his ears back like this when he saw some of his pup buddies playing but he couldn’t join them because he was on a leash.
Dog ears that are pulled back can often indicate fearfulness. This is especially true if combined with other facial and body signals associated with this emotion. You can assess a dog’s fearfulness by their lowered body posture, lowered tail, ears back, panting, yawning, lip-licking, avoiding eye contact and attempts to hide, escape or retreat. It’s important to note that all dogs express fear differently and they may only show some of these signs. Some dogs also show this stiffness of the tail or body, trembling, furrowed brow, whale eye, squinting, dilated pupils, or pulling the corners of the lips back.
Sometimes dogs put their ears back when they are nervous or anxious, and that will often be combined with other body language such as tongue flicks, panting, tension in the body, or other signs of anxiety. This is a common behavior in dogs who must be in the car but dislike road trips, or dogs who are overwhelmed by too many children at once. You might also find your dog doing this when you are petting them, which indicates they aren’t enjoying themselves.
When a dog’s ears are in their natural resting position, it typically indicates that a dog is comfortable in the situation. When dogs greet each other, however, it is common to see one dog maintain their natural ear posture, suggesting that they are is at ease, while another dog puts their ears back, indicating the opposite. Putting the ears back in this context may be an appeasement behavior.
Dogs who are about to bite often pin their ears tightly to the head. It has been suggested that this may simply protect their ears from injury by keeping them out of the way of any teeth in the vicinity. This would be combined with other body language as a warning sign, including growling, barking, lunging, tooth displaying, going stiff, tongue flicking, charging, hard stares, and facial expressions indicating nervousness or fearfulness (see above).
Males will pull their ears back when they are courting a female, and this body language is one of many forms of expression that indicates he is interested in her.
At the end of the day, the motion of pulling the ears back is quite obvious, but the meaning is not always so apparent. Unfortunately, humans have great difficulty in interpreting the emotional signs of dogs. It is important to be educated about dog body language in order to correctly assess your dogs mood and minimize problems when interacting with them.
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Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT-KA
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.