Everyone knows that dogs have an incredible sense of smell and thus their noses seem to be the most commonly celebrated trait. Their ears often go unnoticed and are underrated in comparison. Not only is that unfortunate due to the fact that their ears have some impressive capabilities but they are also one of the primary ways canines communicate. Considering the fact that dogs have 18 muscles in their ears alone, it is not surprising they are able able to rotate, tilt, flatten, raise, as well as move each ear independently so seamlessly. The skill comes in handy for a multitude of different reasons and is exhibited by all dogs alike. One of the most recognizable positions is ears flattened backward. So what is your furry friend trying to tell you when he does that and how well do you understand his body language?
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The Root of the Behavior
Canine’s ancestors have evolved different, complex systems of communication over the centuries of their existence that have been since passed on to the domesticated dog. From communication through scent, such as subtle ways of pawing the ground to leave a mark of their trail to more obvious ways such as urinating to claim territory, to communication through sound by howling, barking and yipping to last but not least - body language. Out of the three, the majority of people tend to struggle with body language the most. However, understanding your dog’s body language is essential in getting a better insight into what your dog is feeling and trying to tell you. Ears are a crucial element in deciphering your dog’s emotions and fortunately, they can be quite expressive. On top of the fact that a dog’s ears are able to hear sounds four times the distance of average human ears and hear high pitched sounds, they can also get a lot of motion - unlike human ears, which are used solely for the purpose of hearing.
Dogs have different ear positions for different emotions, to help you decode what your canine companion is feeling at a given time you need to also consider other elements of body language, such as their expression or posture. Before you begin, you also need to identify what is the natural state of your dog’s ears which will be highly dependant on the breed. German Shepherds, West Highland Terriers, Siberian Huskies, and Chihuahuas have naturally upright, pointy ears, and breeds such as Collies or Fox Terriers have semi-pricked ears, while others have dropped ears or folded ears as often seen with Bloodhounds or Jack Russell Terriers.
If your dog’s ears are just slightly positioned back compared to their natural position it could mean your dog is in a friendly or playful mood, especially if it is accompanied by a smile or a wagging tail. Ears that are pinned back, slightly hanging down to the sides can mean your dog is in a submissive state, possibly after getting into some trouble (like making a mess or ruining your favorite pair of shoes!) and feeling guilty.
Ears that are pinned straight and backward can signal a dog’s fear but if his lip curls around his mouth and he is making a low, steady growl as well- he could be telling you to back off.
Encouraging the Behavior
A dog should be able to express his emotions freely, however, if your dog is showing signs of aggression by having his ears moved back and growling or snapping it should not be encouraged in any way. Quite the opposite, if you notice such signs of unfriendliness it is highly encouraged to take your dog to a dog trainer to sort out the behavioral problem. Note down what you were doing or what happened before your canine companion entered the hostile state. On the other hand, if your dog moves his ears back while wagging his tail, his friendly demeanor should be encouraged and praised. In this case, your dog is showing you that he is happy or showing his appreciation, especially if you have recently given him a snack or took him for a walk.
Whatever the case may be, remember that just like humans, dogs can experience a variety of emotions and should feel comfortable enough around you to share them with you. The only time you should do anything about it is if the emotions are negative. If your dog is anxious or fearful, you need to make sure to calm him down and find what is making him feel this way, quite often it can be a vacuum cleaner or a trip to the veterinarian. If anger is displayed through aggressive behavior, it should also definitely be addressed.
Other Solutions and Considerations
In either case, a professional dog trainer can help you not only understand your dog’s emotions and behavior but can also help you modify it when it is necessary. Some cases can be especially tricky, for example, if your dog has cropped ears it might be more difficult to decipher his intentions or if your dog is giving you mixed signals.
You should never approach dogs on the street if they have their ears perked-up, moved forward, or backward against their head as they might either be guarding and in a protective mode or fearful. Both of the situations require a lot of caution as dogs can be unpredictable in those states. The best encounters can result from naturally relaxed ears and a wagging tail, plus the owner’s permission to pet!
Understanding the body language of dogs is a very valuable skill for any person to have - especially when it comes to ears as they can speak volumes. Not only can it help you avoid an unpleasant run-in with a potentially aggressive dog on the street but it can also enable you to better understand how your dog is feeling. Successfully communicating with your four-legged family member equips you with the ability to connect with your dog on a deeper level as well as solve any behavioral problems that come up in the future.