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 to 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.
Dogs display many gestures with their ears. To truly understand what your dog is trying to tell you, we must first understand the meaning of each gesture. The purpose behind these gestures applies to most dogs, but for the more stoic dogs, or the dramatic ones who try to convince strangers they’ve been abused, neglected and starved, understanding their ear positions may require a higher level of education.
Starting with the obvious, your dog is most at ease when his ears are in a natural resting position. Whether they are perked up like an over-caffeinated German Shepherd or hanging off a Basset Hound like wet sheets on a laundry line, you can rest assured that as far stress levels go, this is what your dog would look like leaving the spa.
Sadness & Fear
Ears tucked close to the head is generally an indication of negative emotions – sadness, fear, anxiety – but they 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.
But what can be said about complex emotions outside of the dog park?
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.
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 and 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).
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.
Ready To Fight
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.
Attracting a Female
To end on a positive note, pinned ears can have one other meaning. It’s been observed that a male dog, when courting an attractive female, will slick its 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.
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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