Our dogs communicate with us in various ways, but the most common ones are through tails, ears, and voice. When trying to read your dog’s body language, you should look at all three—and more.
A 2018 study, published in Animals, from researchers in Italy, says that you should also pay attention to the eyes and mouth when judging ear position communication. We agree. If your dog seems to be showing conflicting emotions reflected in his tail vs. ears vs. voice or more, be safe and assume that dog is not happy.
For strictly dog ear language, the Italian researchers determined that:
Dogs can pull their ears back various degrees according to the animals’ arousal state. Ears can vary from simply “back,” to communicate an appeasement intention, to “flattened” or “pressed back,” in frightened individuals as an agonistic response. In extremely fearful individuals, ears can be pressed back so far on the head that they completely disappear (“seal ears”). On the contrary, ears kept forward are associated with interest, attention, and approach-oriented intentions, while sideward position indicates a conflicting inner state (“airplane ears”).
So, when you arrive home, and your dog runs to greet you with ears up, you can be confident that he is excited to see you, making sure it is you, and happy. As he gets closer, he may drop and/or pull his ears back, still wagging and smiling, and you know that’s because he’s trying to please you.
Common Dog Ear Position Meanings
It is easier to read the signals of prick ears than drop or partially up ears, but there are similarities.
Ears up: Your dog is alert and listening. He may have one ear up and the other semi alert, too.
Ears rotated: Ears that seem to be rotated in somewhat in different directions means he may be listening to something coming from one area off to the side.
Ears up and tightly held, almost touching: Your dog is very intense. It could be a prelude to a charge. “Squirrel!”
Ears held back and down: Submission or relaxed. If the ears are tightly down, your dog is likely stressed, which may be through submission or fear—even fear strong enough to become aggressive.
Note: If your dog is showing unusual ear postures, such as one ear held down, tilting his head slightly, or holding a drop ear out from his head a bit, he may have an ear infection or hematoma in the ear. Ears are very sensitive, so examine them carefully and consider making a visit to your veterinary clinic.