Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Human-to-Dog Communication Is Never Easy
When dogs pull their ears back, they are trying to convey some sort of message. Are you listening to what your dog is trying to say? Well, firstly, consider that interpreting dog body language isn't as easy as you think. You can't just focus on one body part without looking at the whole picture.
In order to decipher your dog's body language, it's therefore important considering other factors. For instance, the context in which the ears pulled back happens and the accompanying body language.
Let's face it: Dogs are perhaps one of the most expressive creatures on the planet aside from humans (and our primate relatives). Dogs can use all sorts of body parts to convey emotions and needs, from those heart-melting begging eyes to the excitement in a feverishly wagging tail to those pinned-back ears.
There can be a host of reasons your pup may be pressing their ears back. Before we identify some of those reasons, let’s take a quick look at the overall way a dog communicates with their ears.
Anatomy of a Dog's Ears
Not all dogs have the same shaped ears or ear placement. Some dogs like Siberian Huskies or German Shepherds have erect, pointed ears, while Rottweilers and Beagles have floppier ears. Some dogs even have very small, cropped ears. But no matter the type of ear your pup is sporting (and can we just talk for a second about how soft and silky must puppy ears are), it is a pretty amazing organ.
Dog ears are composed of over 18 muscles that allow your pooch to move it backward, forward, down, sideways and even independently of the other ear. Now, imagine if humans had the ability to do that!
Dogs don’t just use their ears to listen and track sounds, although that is the predominant purpose. They use their ears to communicate with other canines and their humans, if they are paying close enough attention.
With Shepherds and dogs of that like, catching the different ear movements your fur baby is using is easy to spot. Other breeds whose ears are floppy or close-cropped take some more attention to detail. With these types of dogs, you’ll want to pay close attention to the base of the ear, where it meets your pup’s skull as that is where the movement is really coming from.
And as always, be sure you are considering the ear placement in the context of what else your pup is doing to get the full picture of what these amazing creatures are trying to tell you. The ear is just one piece of the puppy puzzle.
Why Does My Dog Pull Their Ears Back?
As mentioned, in order to evaluate why your dog pulls his ears back, it helps to keep track of when the behavior occurs and the accompanying body language. By putting these puzzle pieces together, we can obtain a more accurate insight into what may be going on in Rover's mind.
In general, the ears can go from slightly pinned back to glued to the heads. In general, the more pressed back, the tenser the dog feels.
They Are Happy and Relaxed
Is your dog lying down with his ears slightly back as he's panting? In such a case, it's possible that he's just chilling out, just feeling happy and relaxed as he enjoys a little bit of downtime.
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They're Telling You or Another Animal That They Aren' a Threat
A common reason you may see a dog pull their ears back is that they are trying to signal that they are not a threat.
Sometimes you will see your dog crouch down and keep their tail low or even between their legs at the same time. It's as if they are trying to make themselves as small as they can. They may not make eye contact either, if they are trying to tell you or another animal, that they mean no harm. Sometimes they may also stick out their tongue to try to lick as another cue to denote that they are friendly.
Many dog owners assume that dogs displaying this body language are "guilty." Studies though have revealed that, in reality, dogs display such body language as a response to their owner's body language, with the purpose of sending an "appeasement signal" in hopes of calming down their irritated owners.
Some dogs may go as far as to pull their ears back and then roll onto their belly to show how prone and harmless they are. You may also spot them releasing a tiny stream of urine as an added clue to other people or dogs that they aren’t in charge and they don’t want a fight. This called "submissive urination."
They Are Greeting You
Some dogs may also contort themselves in a U-shaped posture as they keep their ears back and wag their tails greeting you. Some others will keep their ears back as they deliver a happy face lick to their owners.
This can be seen as more of a welcoming gesture. They want to get close to you without you thinking they are intending to harm you. This is often part of a dog's greeting ritual, a friendly demonstration, that is often accompanied by a wiggly and loose body.
They Are Stressed or Anxious
And of course, most dogs who find themselves stressed or anxious will pull their ears back as a sign of distress. The farther back they go (i.e., the closer to being completely flat against their skull) the higher that anxiety level. Along with the ears back, you may notice a tense body, the whites of the eyes showing (the so-called whale eyes in dogs) and lips pulled back.
Next time you find yourself angry with your pup for something they’ve done, pay attention to what their body language tells you. You’ll probably notice that they are giving you appeasement body language, not because they feel guilty, but because they are intimidated and want to make themselves seem as small and unimposing as possible.
If you notice your dog is in a vulnerable situation with their ears pressed flat against their head and they are exhibiting other symptoms of anxiety, you should be careful when approaching. Scared dogs are more prone to snap or bite if they think they have no other choice, but to go on the offensive.
It's a Protective Mechanism
Not surprisingly, when a dog has his or her ears pressed completely flat against their head, it is also a safety mechanism. As we established, oftentimes they are doing this in reaction to fear or high-stress situations such as being the target of an aggressor.
Even with close-cropped ears, having them stick out normally gives the attacker another point of contact. And since ears are far thinner than other body parts, a set of teeth or claws can do a lot more damage by biting or scratching. Given that dogs rely on their ears to alert them to the sounds of oncoming danger, having one, or both ears damaged, puts them at a great disadvantage.
It's All Good!
You may also notice your pups pulling their ears back when are play fighting with other dogs. It isn’t so much a defense mechanism in this case because there seems to be a shared understanding between dogs who are playing that neither means the other harm.
But having one’s ears pressed back is that extra signal that “I’m not a threat to you, it's all play ” just in case that mutual play intent gets missed by one pup.
Something Is Happening Behind Them
Of course, quite obvious, but still worthy of mentioning, dogs may also pull their ears back to attend to sounds located behind them. Such dogs may be studying or and evaluating a situation so as to be ready for their next move.
When dogs or cats are threatened, they usually pull back their ears and flatten them against their head. This action helps them to protect their ears from injury if they have to fight another animal.
— Exploring Life Science, Volume 6
The Bottom Line
A dog’s ear is a pretty fascinating body part (in case you're curious, here are 30 more fascinating dog ear facts) that can tell you so many things about your pup’s needs, wants and moods. It is therefore important to listen to those signals they are giving you.
Here are some final reminders:
- Your pup may be pressing their ears back if they’ve done something, and you’re mad at them, in an effort to appease you.
- If your pup is prone to being skittish around stressors, you’ll likely notice their ears are pulled back. Be careful when you approach them.
- During fights or play among dogs, dogs may retract their ears to keep them out of harm's way and for communication.
- Be careful to context! Dog ears may stay back even when they hear noises behind them.
- While pictures can tell a lot about body language, it's important to consider that they are just capturing a moment in time. Therefore, one can only make some educated assumptions on how the dog may feel, but it won't always match what's really happening.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Adrienne Farricelli
Sp Greaney from Ireland on January 26, 2021:
This is so interesting. I never really take much notice of dogs doing this but the next time I see a dog doing this with its ears, I will now know why.
FlourishAnyway from USA on January 25, 2021:
The variety of situations and corresponding photos were very educational and I don’t even have a dog! I have, however, walked neighbors’ dogs and family members have dogs so I appreciate being able to decipher some of the body language. What an excellent article!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 25, 2021:
Dogs' ears can certainly be expressive. Thanks for showing us some of the meanings.