Why Do Dogs Pull Their Ears Back?

Adrienne Farricelli

Dogs pull their ears back often when they are in a fearful state or feel threatened from a stimulus or situation. Paying attention to your dog's ears is important to gain a deeper knowledge about what is going on with your canine friend, however, it's important to consider that ears are only one piece of the puzzle.

Dogs pull their ears back for some very good reasons: for instance, they may be trying to keep them out of harm's way and those lowered ears may also help dogs communicate their peaceful intents. In order to better understand this behavior, it helps to gain a closer insight into some dog psychology. 

Dogs are masters in body language. Dogs indeed use their bodies to convey a variety of emotions. Their eyes, tails and ears in particular are communication tools ready to be interpreted by knowledgeable observers. Do you know what your dog is trying to tell you? Read on to learn why dogs pull their ears back and what this can mean. 

Many dogs pull their ears back and use lip licks when photographed

A Lesson in Dog Ear Language 

Dog ears are quite interesting conversation pieces. While in us humans, our ears are pretty much static, dog ears are highly mobile courtesy of more than 18 muscles which allow dogs to swivel their ears, almost in a satellite-dish fashion.

 If you watch your dog's ears carefully, indeed, you will notice how your dog can move them in various directions, up, down, sideways and even independently from each other.

On top of locating the origin of sounds, dog ears are also used as means of communication. Once again, we must thank the mobility of dog ears for this. 

While the ears of dog breeds with erect, pointy ears such as German shepherds and Siberian huskies show a lot of expression, dogs such as Rottweilers or cocker spaniels feature floppy ears that are less noticeable when moved around. In these dogs, you will need to look at the ear base and pay attention as well to other parts of the body. 

Deciphering the body language of dogs who have very shortly cropped ears (as sometimes seen in Dogo Argentinos, Neapolitan mastiffs and Cane Corsos) may also be a challenge. 

In general, ears in dogs that are pulled forward indicate interest or excitement. A relaxed dog will typically have ears that are held halfway in a neutral position. On top of the ears being carried this way, relaxed dogs often display a relaxed mouth and soft eyes. 

As the ears go back, the dog may be trying to convey a variety of emotions based on the context in which the pulling-the-ears back behavior occurs and its accompanying body language. As mentioned, the ears are only one piece of the puzzle!

Why Do Dogs Pull Their Ears Back?

This dog appears to be signaling appeasing body language and perhaps a touch of anxiety

Ears pulled back may be an appeasement signal in dogs who want to communicate that they mean no harm. It's as if these dogs are saying "I'm no challenge, so please be nice with me."

These dogs often exhibit a lowered body posture and they may avoid making direct eye contact. Their tail may be kept in a low position often between the legs. They may stick their tongue out in an attempt to lick and they may show squinty eyes. Shenkel in a paper published on the journal "Integrative and Comparative Biology" referred to this posture as "active submission."

Some dogs sending appeasement signals may walk in a U-shape, carrying their head and butt area in a curve so to demonstrate affiliative feelings of friendship and attachment. This body posture is often seen during greetings. 

A more pronounced appeasement form is seen during passive submission. These dogs will exhibit pulled ears as they roll over and even emit a trickle of urine to demonstrate that they mean no harm. This posture is reminiscent of the days when pups were cleaned by their mothers.

Dogs may also pull their ears back when they feel intimidated (watch those ears go back when the owner gets upset with the dog) providing what may look like "the guilty" look. In this case though, more than feeling guilty, the dog is simply sending appeasing body language in hopes of calming down the owner and deflecting his threatening posture or tone. 

 And then, there are cases where ears are pulled back due to dogs feeling stressed and frightened. In this case, these dogs seem to almost attempt to become small, almost invisible beings, especially when their tails are tucked under them and their bodies are lowered. 

As dogs grow more and more stressed or worried about a situation they will pull their ears back more and more until they will be almost plastered against their head. Caution is needed as dogs in such a fearful state may growl, snap and even bite, especially when not given enough space or when their warning body signals are ignored. 

Dogs may also pull back their ears when they are play fighting to intend no harm and possibly for protection

Why Do Dogs Flatten Their Ears Against Their Head?

Why do dogs pull their ears back flat against their head in the first place though? Interestingly, one theory has it that pulling ears back is a protective mechanism. 

According to the book "Exploring Life Science, Volume 6" dogs and cats who feel threatened will pull their ears back so that they are flattened against their head. "This action helps to protect their ears from injury if they have to fight another animal."

This theory makes sense after all. Ears carried naturally protrude from the head, and they can easily be scratched or bitten by another animal with an aggressive intent. By flattening them tightly against the head, dogs are practicing some level of damage control.

To further reinforce this theory, dogs who are frightened also often tuck their tails under them which can also be an effort to protect a tail which is quite an easy-to-grab protrusion. 

And of course, dogs may  also pull their ears back to attend to sounds located behind them and evaluate a situation. This dog seems to be concentrated on something and ready for his next move

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs pull their ears back to convey a variety of emotions. It's important to learn how to read a dog's body language to prevent dogs from suffering stress. If your dog's ears are kept low due to fear, you will have to tackle the fear so your dog can learn to relax and become more confident. Here are some general tips for fearful dogs and dogs who benefit from a boost of confidence.

  • Learn to read your dog's body language so that you can can quickly intervene when a situation is getting too stressful to your dog.
  • Enlist the help of a professional well-versed in dog behavior and who employs force-free behavior modification without the use of aversives. Look for an experienced behavior consultant who has taken many behavior cases for many years. 
  • Identify your dog's triggers and prevent your dog from being exposed to them at full intensity.
  • Aim to employ behavior modification methods based on desensitization and counterconditioning with the help a professional. 
  • Dogs who show a lot of appeasement gestures, and have an overall shy demeanor, may benefit from exercises to increase a dog's confidence such as introducing them to obstacle courses, clicker training and trick training.