Why Do Dogs Put Their Ears Back? It’s Not Always Obvious

The first time my dog put her ears back when I tried to pet her, I nearly broke into a panic. Why was she suddenly so terrified of me? Had I somehow abused her without knowing it? Would she ever forgive me? Was she already looking for a new owner on craigslist? This lead me to figure out the answer to the question “why do dogs put their ears back?“. Turns out there’s a lot of reasons a dog would do this.

A dog’s ability to communicate emotion through the behavior of their ears is much more complicated than a simple wag of a tail that signals joy and playfulness. Dog’s ears are designed to hear sounds and frequencies at ultra-high levels from great distances. If you’ve ever noticed your dog’s ears rotating around like a radar dish, that’s just them listening in multiple directions at once.

All dog owners should have general knowledge on what their dog is trying to communicate with them, and a lot of this communication happens with the ears. For example, a happy dog, submissive dog, and aggressive dog all do something with their ears. In this article you are going to learn how to ready certain body language cues that go along with a dog pinning their ears back.

The Main Reasons Dogs Put Their Ears Back

A dog will put their ears back for a number of reasons. Unfortunately there is no “simple answer” to this question. However, by analyzing the body language along with whether the ears are high or low, you’ll have a general idea of the emotion your dog may be expressing. For example, if the ears are pinned back low, the mouth is open and they are panting, they might be overheated and thirsty. If the ears are pinned back and high and the eyes are wide open, your dog may be curious about something.  Here’s a quick list of the primary reasons dogs pin their ears back. We will go into each one in more detail in the remainder of this article.

  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Happy
  • Nervous
  • Aggressive
  • Attracting a Mate (for male dogs)

But Which One is It?

The list above offers numerous reasons dogs put their ears back, the problem is they are all so different. Some of them are even the opposite. For example, both happiness and sadness are both on that list. Your dog can’t be happy and sad at the same time, but they’ll pin their ears back in both situations.

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This means you can’t just pay attention to their ears, you have to pay attention to the rest of your dogs body language. As an example, you know your dog is happy when the ears are pinned back and the tail is wagging, but you know they are afraid when their ears are back and their tail is tucked between their legs.

In the remainder of this article, we will go over the different types of ways dogs put their ears back along with some other body language cues you can use to figure out what your pup is trying to tell you.

Ears Tucked Close When Around Another Dog

Ears tucked close to the head with droopy eyes is generally an indication of negative emotions – sadness, fear, anxiety – but it can also be a sign of good manners and proper dog-park etiquette. Before the part of introductions that involve close inspection of each other’s rear-end, one dog will typically turn their head gently to the side and soften their eyes and ears as wet noses come together. If both parties agree to the terms of a loosely defined social contract, then a game of tag (with rules understood only by the maniacs chasing each other) will usually follow.

Ears Tucked Close With Droopy Eyes

If the eyes are droopy along with the pinned back ears, it’s usually an indication of sadness. Dogs become sad for a variety of reasons. Ears may be tucked down close to the sides of the head upon the departure of their favorite human. It might happen when you run out of treats, or even when you have to substitute their food with a generic brand because you forgot to go to the fancy pet-store.

The downward spiral of utter heartbreak starts with the ears, moves to the eyes, and eventually leads to the impossibility to hold their head off the floor any longer. For the more dramatic dogs, expect a final step in which they fall onto their side in complete surrender and despair (sarcasm of course).

Ears Loosely Tucked With Tail Tucked

Fear in dogs can come from feeling overwhelmed, startled, vulnerable or just unsure about their surroundings. In this state, the ears are still pulled back but set more loosely against their head, most likely to maintain a good sense of hearing in case the perceived threat turns into a real one.

Facial expressions that accompany a fearful dog’s down-turned ears include a grimace with the corners of the dog’s mouth pulled back, tongue flicks, panting, or tension in the body with dilated pupils. I once saw a dog put their ears back and fall over dead (not actually dead) when being taken to get a bath. (I almost did the same thing on my way to the DMV).

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Though steadfast in character, dogs can easily get overwhelmed. A swarm of children, a road trip, or a visit to the veterinarian can cause a sense of unease that results in a dog trying to make itself as small as possible. As long as his tail is still gently wagging and his mouth is slightly open, your dog will get over the fear in no time.

Ears Sharply Pinned Back With Aggressive Growling

A dog who has chosen ‘fight’ over ‘flight’ will take a stand by pining its ears back sharply and growling before it attacks a perceived enemy. Perhaps the ears go back to protect against potential injury, or maybe it’s an effort to appear as nothing more than an angry set of sharp, snapping teeth. Either way, the dog has passed a point of no return, and it’s probably best to get out of the way.

However, this type of behavior should not be encouraged. It’s ok for dogs to express their feelings by pinning back their ears for any reason other than this one. If this is an ongoing behavior for your k9 buddy, you might want to take them to a trainer to stop the behavior before it gets worse.

Ears Slightly Positioned Back

Different breeds have different natural resting positions for their ears. Some are floppy, some are upright and pointy, and some are folded. You’ll want to know where your dog naturally rests their ears to be able to figure out if they are just slightly positioned back.

The good news is they are slightly back and their tail is wagging, that means they are excited and want to play! When you see them in this state, it’s a good idea to take them outside to burn that extra energy that’s building up.

Ears Back and Down

If the ears are back AND down when around another dog, it’s a clear sign of submission. Dogs are very expressive with their ears when they meet new dogs. If the ears are simply pinned to the side this means they’re excited to meet the new dog and want to play. However, if they are back and down, this means they are submitting to the other dog.

Ears Tightly Back With Drooped Head

This can mean a few things. First, it can be fear. Your dog might be drooping their head down low to try to stay as “little” as possible to hide from whatever is causing the fear.

The second meaning (and more likely) is guilt. You’ll see this behavior in your dog when they get caught doing something they know they shouldn’t have done. Next time your dog chews up a shoe or destroys a pillow, notice how their ears will pin back and they’ll quickly drop their head when you see what they did.

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Attracting a Female

If your male dog is pinning his ears back around a female dog, he might have a little crush! It’s been observed that a male dog, when courting an attractive female, will slick his ears back the same way a teenager going to prom will use way too much pomade. Short of buying her a diamond collar, this is one of the sure-bet ways a male dog can land a date with his lady-friend.

Your Dogs Natural Ear Position

Another thing you should take into account is your dogs natural relaxed ear position. Some dogs have floppy ears, some have pricked ears, and some dogs maintain pinned back ears. The above information might not mean much for a dog that has natural pinned back ears. On the same note, a dog with floppy ears might not be able to pin them all the way back, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t expressing the same emotions.

Dogs are indeed man’s ‘best friend.’ They give unconditional love every day, no matter how many times you oversleep and have to skip the dog park. They reward you with bright, shining eyes and a wagging tail just for coming home from work. And now that you possess a deeper understanding of what it means when they do ‘this’ or ‘that’ with their ears, they’ll love you even more.

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