By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Consultant
"Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen." -- Orhan Pamuk
Dogs are incredible communicators. One could argue they are more effective communicators than humans, considering they use all of their senses and how most of their "talk" is through nonverbal signaling.
As guardians of our beloved pets, the more we learn about their body posture and how it can convey their state of emotion, the closer we can become with our canine companions.
The Significance of Ears in a Dog's Communication Repertoire
A dog's ears are one of many components of canine body language. They are like a window into their emotional state. They can pivot and move independently, allowing them to express various feelings and intentions. By considering a dog's ear position and movement and how it fits into the rest of the body's physical state, dog owners can gain valuable insight into their furry friend's mood. Pet parents can learn to decipher excitement from stress, all with help from a dog's ears.
In this article, we will explore various ear positions and what they can mean to understand better which of the wide range of feelings they may be expressing at any given moment.
Ears Back for Physical Discomfort
As a behavior professional, before considering asking a dog to do something different with their emotions (behavior modification), the go-to is medically clearing the reason for a concerning behavior first. Like sore joints or stomach aches, ear infections can be pretty painful, which will alter their behavior. They may hold back their ears and even avoid affection if someone gets near their head, whether intending to touch their ears or not.
If you notice your pup avoiding petting, shaking his head, crying out if you pet his ears, pawing at his ears, or rubbing his ears on the ground more than usual, consult your veterinarian to check for an ear infection.
Ears Back for Fear and Anxiety
Barking, lunging, cowering, trembling, snarling, hiding, hackles raised, whimpering, whining, panting excessively, drooling, and making themselves appear smaller (crouching down) can all be signs of fear or anxiety. When a dog expresses these outward signs of fear or anxiety, you may also notice the position of the dog's ears is generally flattened against their head or pulled back tightly.
When a dog feels threatened, in addition to their ear placement, fearful facial expressions often appear, with a furrowed brow and even whale eye where the whites of their eyes are more clearly visible from widening the eyes.
Dogs in a calm state often have a soft face and body and are relaxed in a natural position. When those ears are out of that relaxed position or not in a neutral position and pinned back, they may be expressing fear or signs of anxiety.
Common Reasons for Fear and Anxiety
Shoving our square-peg domesticated dogs into round human holes comes with the downside of fear or anxiety. We often expect that dogs conform to our lifestyle and home environment, whether they are individually naturally built for it or not. For example, apartment living for an Australian Shepherd - a breed designed to work long days on the farm herding animals - may be stressful due to a lack of healthy stimulation, lack of ability to use their purposefully active brains enough, and even the inability to physically organize the "chaos" that is happening around them outside of the apartment. A perceived lack of control can lead to many frustrating behaviors, including anxiety for the pet and pet parent.
Other common specific reasons include thunderstorms, fireworks, a lack of proper socialization during a puppy's early critical socialization period, medical visits to the vet, something scary happening during a critical fear period, loud noises, new environments, strangers, gunshots, punishment-based training, and even exposure to an animal they've never encountered. Something as simple as passing a flag on a walk waving in the wind can trigger a fearful response based on the individual dog.
Comforting a Fearful or Anxious Dog
If you notice ear pinning or flattening along with any of the above-described situations, provide your pup with a safe and reassuring environment. Avoid flooding your dog, meaning exposing them to what they are afraid of repeatedly, as that can worsen the situation. You can't fix fear with fear, but you can improve their fear with comfort and trust.
Offer a soothing voice, remove them from a stressful environment, and engage in an activity with your pup that makes them feel good and forget their worries. Seek help from a behavior professional to get the most benefit for a fearful or anxious dog, and talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist about medications or supplements that may help soothe your dog's stress.
You can prevent fear and anxiety in most dogs, starting in puppyhood, with adequate social exposure, clear and consistent communication, and working with an accredited dog trainer right from the start.
Ears Back for Submissive Behavior
Dominant and submissive behavior are not adjectives to label personalities; instead, they are very context-specific behaviors that can change from situation to situation.
Dominant and passive submissive behaviors are expressions that communicate intent when dogs are vying for resources. For example, say there's a bone on the floor between two pups. One dog may stiffen, hold their breath, hold their ears up and forward, and give a quiet, low growl. This dog is exhibiting intent to possess the item and is likely willing to escalate their behavior if the other dog is not receptive to their intentions.
The second dog may lower their body, pin their ears back, exhibit lip licking, and even back away. The second dog is exhibiting appeasement behaviors, which are submissive behaviors indicating the intent of not challenging the other dog for the valued item. The second dog demonstrates an effort to yield and decreases the likelihood of an altercation or aggressive response from the other dog.
Appeasement gestures (ears back, slowing the body, not making eye contact, backing away) are intended to disengage from the other dog safely. Dogs can also exhibit active submissive behaviors to engage the other dog or person further, whether for play or attention.
Ears Back for Playfulness and Excitement
Quite the opposite of appeasement gestures or passive submission, active submission is meant to engage the other dog or person or to initiate play.
With ears back, an engaging dog exhibiting active submission moves faster - think wigglier - and often has a relaxed mouth and wagging tail. The dog may bounce back and forth in front of their intended playmate or source of excitement.
Dogs showing active submissive behaviors may also lick (give lots of kisses), use their muzzle to push up against your hand or body, and even roll over on their back to expose their belly for rubs.
Side Note: Not all dogs who expose their belly are asking for belly rubs; in fact, sometimes quite the opposite. This is why context and signs from the whole dog's body collectively are crucial in determining communication. A dog may put their ears back and roll over, exposing their belly as a passive, submissive gesture asking you to please stop (to decrease engagement).
Breed and Individual Variation in Dog's Ears
Considering the individual dog rather than generalizing ear positions and interpretations can mean the difference between a misunderstanding and being able to respond to your dog appropriately. Getting used to the individual dog's mood in various situations and their behaviors when they are happy, nervous, playful, or even tired can help circumvent the physical differences you may see between the many shapes, sizes, and positions dog ears come in from breed to breed.
Different dog breeds have considerably varying appearances, including the shape and how they naturally rest. Some dogs have long and floppy ears, like Basset Hounds, whereas German Shepherds have ears that naturally stand straight up.
Ear cropping, where the ears are surgically cut for aesthetics to stand erect and appear a certain way, is still commonly practiced with many breeds, especially in the United States. Cropping can affect how we, and other dogs, perceive communication coming from the ears. While dogs with cropped ears can still pin them back against their head, other movements can be more challenging to interpret with part of the ear gone, such as a natural flop forward when relaxed.
Other Ear Positions Present Meaningful Body Language
Though this article focuses on ears back, have some fun exploring various other positions you may see your dog's ears in, such as erect ears, one ear up and one ear down, or satellite-ing (moving side to side or around rapidly). These movements also indicate a response to their environment, whether actively listening due to interest, feeling conflictual, or happily trotting along in a relaxed state.
Listening Isn't Just for Ears
When a dog puts their ears back, no matter the reason, it's vital to respond in a way that communicates back - "I hear you, and I respect you." Answering communication from a dog, whether due to fear, anxiety, engagement, or disengagement, helps your dog trust you more and can strengthen the bond between you and your favorite furry friend.
Canine behavior is complex and nuanced. While we've outlined why dogs position their ears in various ways to communicate, react, and express emotion, understanding dog language is more complex than deciphering just the position of the ears. The context is critical. What is happening in the environment and what the rest of the dog's body language is purveying provide a complete picture of your pup's emotional state. The tail, posture, facial expressions, mouth, and eyes are all pieces of the collective puzzle. Learning how to put the pieces together can help curb brewing fear or even aggressive behavior.
We can't always know what a dog thinks or feels - none of us are genuinely inside their head. However, studying dog behavior and their relationships with other animals has given us so much insight into how to interpret body language from dogs, including those ever-changing super cute ear positions they love to display. Being able to spot signs of anxiety or tapping into that excitement at the sound of something fun can do wonders for the well-being of your furry family member.