People often say dogs can’t tell us how they are feeling, but that’s not strictly true.
While they might not be able to speak to us, dogs are constantly signaling with their body language what they are thinking and feeling, like when they put their ears back.
If you take the time to learn your pup’s body language cues, you can usually have a pretty good idea of what is going on with them.
This might take some work, and you might have to look at some context clues as well; for example, there are various reasons why a dog might pull their ears back and while we can generalize, each dog has their own specific body language.
In this article, we will go through the most common reasons why a dog pulls its ears back.
It is often an involuntary emotional response, and similar emotions trigger the response in most dogs, but to truly understand your unique dog you need to observe its body language regularly and identify its individual physical responses to different situations.
While every dog is different, they tend to be consistent with their own behavior.
The most important body language sign to look for in dogs is an inexplicable change in behavior, as this is the surest indication that something is not quite right.
Your Dog Is Afraid
Probably one of the most common dog emotions accompanied by pulling the ears back is fear.
This will often be combined with other body language cues such as tucking its tail between its legs and lowering its body posture.
He might start to experience fear during fireworks or a thunderstorm, if a threatening presence enters his space, or he lands at a veterinarian’s office where he has previously had a bad experience, but pulling back his ears is only one of several body language positions that your dog might assume if he is afraid, and often different types of fear can trigger different body language responses.
Your Dog Detects Danger
If your dog detects danger, it will go into fight or flight mode just like humans do. Of course, if their human is nearby, most dogs will almost certainly choose to fight to protect you.
When they are in fight mode they might pin their ears back.
Some people suggest that this is to protect their ears in case of a fight, but it is probably just another involuntary body language response to their emotional state.
Of course, you will probably also see them baring their teeth, pointing their nose in the direction of the danger, and growling, as they prepare to jump in if necessary.
Your Dog Is Anxious
Anxiety is actually a fairly common emotional condition in dogs. Many will respond with anxiety when they have to do something they don’t enjoy such as taking a bath or having their nails cut.
If they don’t like road trips, just seeing an open car door might trigger feelings of anxiety, which can cause them to pull their ears back.
One of the most common causes of anxiety in dogs is separation anxiety. Most dogs love being around their people, and many breeds will develop anxiety if they are left alone for long stretches.
If you are the type of person who spends a lot of time outside the house and can’t take your dog with you, it is important to choose your breed carefully!
I recently went on vacation for a month and couldn’t take my dog with me, so I left her with a family member.
She was more than happy to see me when I got back, but now, every time I leave the house and it becomes clear that I am not taking her with me, she pulls her ears back and retreats to one of her favorite corners of the home.
She is clearly anxious that I’ll be away for an extended period of time again and leave her behind.
Your Dog Is Sad
Do dogs feel sad?
Of course they do! If your dog is feeling sad, it might instinctively tuck its ears back close to its head.
If their favorite person is heading out of the house and they realize they’ll be left home alone, they feel pretty sad.
They might also experience sadness if they are prevented from participating in fun activities, such as running off-leash with other dogs in the park.
Your Dog Is Socializing
Just like most societies, canine society tends to have a pecking order!
There are various reasons why your dog may decide that another dog is above them in the pecking order and deserves respect or appeasement.
If two friendly dogs meet, they will probably hold their ears in their natural position, give one another a good sniff, and then start to play.
If your dog encounters a canine that she thinks needs appeasement, she might pull her ears back while the two get to know one another’s scents. The “superior” dog will keep its ears up.
This will probably only last a few seconds. With this social ritual out of the way, the two dogs can start playing.
You will probably notice that your dog is a bit more careful in their play while they get used to each other, though.
Your Dog Is Courting
If your male dog comes across a lady dog in heat, he might pull his ears back as he approaches her and give her hind section a good sniff to determine if she really is ready to “get busy.”
Similar to other socializing cues, your dog is showing deference to the lady and letting her know that he is interested.
She will know exactly what these cues mean and decide how to respond depending on where she is in her heat cycle.
Your Dog Is Feeling Sick Or Injured
If your dog is in pain due to an injury or a sickness that is less easily detected, it may pull its ears back in response to the pain.
This can also be a result of confusion because they don’t feel good and they aren’t sure why they are feeling this way so, in a way, it is a mix of pain, anxiety, and fear.
It can also be an involuntary response to sudden pain. If you accidentally stand on your dog’s paw (it happens!), you’ll certainly hear them give a yelp.
If you look around quickly enough you might also see that they pull their ears back as they pull their paw away.
This usually happens pretty quickly, and they will relax again with a little bit of love and affection from you.
Your Dog Is Listening
Dogs have a keen sense of hearing and they are always listening to what is going on around them.
They often pivot their ears to get the best angle to pick up noises in different directions. This may mean pivoting their ears backward to pick up on what is happening behind them.
When your dog is doing this, you will probably notice their ears in motion in a backward direction, rather than pinned back, as they search for the best position to pick up the sound they are seeking.
Read our guide to what scratching means in canine body language.
What does it mean when a dog puts its paws on you?
If your dog comes up and touches you with its paws, it often means they want some affection and attention from the person they love.
With strangers, it can also be part of the process of figuring out what is going on, along with lots of sniffing.
What does it mean when a dog yawns?
Dogs yawn when they are tired, and they may also be stretching their facial muscles, but excessive yawning is often a sign of stress in dogs and may indicate anxiety.
Understanding Your Dog
Dogs are always signaling what is going on with them through their actions and body language.
Where they choose to sit in the house can reveal what they are thinking, and the way they position their ears, tail, and body can tell you what they are feeling.
If you take the time to observe your dog, you can soon get pretty good at reading them.
When your dog pulls their ears back, it could be for a variety of different reasons. This emotional sign will often appear in combination with other body language indicators to help you decipher the mystery.
Read our five reasons your dog isn’t listening to you and what it has to do with body language.