Why do dogs put their ears back?

A black dog looking into the distance, focused in on their ears

Much like their tail, your dog’s ears are the windows to their soul. Or at least their brain. Your dog puts their ears back to indicate:

  • Relaxation: The natural position of your dog’s ears is slightly back, so when not actively pointed forward, they tilt back.
  • Fear/Nervousness: The ears lie back to indicate discomfort. If your dog is nervous about something, they’ll display other stress signals as well.
  • Warning: When pinned flat against the skull and paired with aggressive body language, the ears indicate that your dog will bite if pushed.
  • Injury: If their ear is hurt or infected, your dog keeps it flat to protect it.
  • Sound: Your dog’s ears are like satellite dishes. Their ears swivel around to better hear what’s going on behind or around them.

How your dog's ears work

Your dog’s hearing is approximately four times more sensitive than yours. They can hear higher frequencies–note that this includes not only dog whistles, but the squeaking of mice hidden in the walls or the humming of electronics scattered around your home. You live in relative silence compared to what your dog experiences, but that has its own advantages!

Dog ears come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some are long and drag on the ground, while others are pointed and in the air. Despite these differences, they function the same: the earflap, or pinna, has over 18 muscles around it to help with the tiny, nuanced movements that allow your dog to pick up sounds from every direction. The pinnae move independently of each other.

Furthermore, your dog’s ear canal is much deeper than yours, creating a funnel that carries sound to the eardrum.

How your dog uses their ears to communicate

As visual animals, we forget that dogs use more than their eyes to orient themselves in space. If your dog is facing one direction but their ears are pointed in another, their focus is on their ears, not their eyes.

Some breed standards call for ear cropping, which can negatively impact a dog’s ability to communicate with other members of their species. Ear cropping does not serve any health or welfare benefit, even in dogs with heavy, hanging ears. Finally, it does not improve a dog’s hearing.

In conclusion...

Like most elements of canine communication, context is king.

Your dog’s ears tell just part of the story. Look at their ears along with their body language and their tail to understand just what it is they’re trying to say.

About the Author

A picture of Melody smiling towards the camera
Melody Lee
Contributing Writer

Melody Lee is a contributing writer for Gentle Beast, and is a CPDT-KA dog trainer. She lives in Manhattan with two feral cats, Littlepip and Alphonse, that tolerate her clicker training attempts. One day, her cats might let her adopt a dog of her own.

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