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The Meaning Behind Your Dog's Ear Positions: What Your Dog's Ears Can Tell You - PawSafe

The Meaning Behind Your Dog’s Ear Positions: What Your Dog’s Ears Can Tell You

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

Dog ear position meanings

Dog ear positions have multiple meanings, from communication to even warning you of health issues. Here’s a chart to tell you what your dog’s ear positions mean. 

Understanding the meaning behind dog ear positions is vital to properly understanding our dogs’ behavior, which is why we created a helpful dog ear positions chart. Too often, as pet parents, we tend to view our dogs as little humans and view the things they do through a human lens. Unfortunately, this means we often misunderstand our dogs.

Not correctly reading our dogs’ ear positions can mean that we view a sign of stress as “cute” and reach for our phones to take a photo instead of removing the source of stress. It can also mean we don’t catch an early sign of aggression before it escalates. For these reasons, we must understand all aspects of canine body language, including dog ear position meaning.

Typical Dog Ear Positions And What They Mean

It’s vital to remember that ear positions are only one part of the communication puzzle. When understanding what a dog’s ears are trying to tell you, it’s vital to consider the environment and the rest of their body and facial language. A dog with pricked ears and a tense body has a very different meaning from a dog with a relaxed one.

Reading ears in the context of the rest of a dog’s body language is vital to truly understand what they mean. So let’s look at some of the most common dog ear positions and what they mean in the context of dog body language.

Dog Shaking Head And Carrying One Ear Lower

Before all else, we always need to consider a medical condition. Canine ear hygiene is vital in avoiding painful and damaging ear infections. Using dog ear cleaning wipes regularly not only gives you a chance to remove bacteria and yeast that could cause infection but also to look for any telltale discharge. The color and types of dog ear wax are worth researching to check on the health of your dog.

In short, if you see your dog restless, excessively shaking their head, and trying to scratch their ears, you may be dealing with a case of otitis or an ear infection. Another common symptom is holding their head to one side so one ear hangs lower.

Ear infections can be tricky to treat and need veterinary intervention. Often, they are a sign of underlying allergies and health problems.

Pricked Ears With A Tense Or Still Body

We all know that pricked ears mean a dog is alert and focused. Whether a dog has erect or folded ears, they perk up and angle them forward when something grabs their attention.

We don’t often realize that in general, ears raised and pushed forward usually have a positive association and are a sign that a dog is anticipating something. Meanwhile, flattened or dropped ears are associated with a negative meaning, such as disappointment or frustration.

But when it comes to pricked ears, it’s essential to realize that focus and anticipation can have negative and positive meanings.

Dogs with a strong predatorial or defense drive prick their ears the second they register something as potential prey or a threat. This can be seen when a Border Collie sees sheep or a police dog sees a person in a bodysuit. A more common example is simply most dogs when they spot a squirrel.

Unless the dog is exceptionally well trained, you often don’t have much time when a dog pricks their ears and spots “prey” before they bolt after the target. This is because a sound, moving object, or other stimuli has triggered their “hindbrain.” In most cases, the urge to give chase or even attack will override any calling or shouting on your part if you can’t intervene quickly.

So the key to understanding this ear position is to look for other cues such as:

  • Eyes or gaze fixated on an object, person, or another animal;
  • A very still, tense body;
  • A tail held straight out or up, with minimal movement;
  • They may drop low, adopting a “stalking” position; and
  • A tense, tight mouth, usually closed.

Note: Any growling, snarling, or raised hackles with pricked ears indicates more than an urge to chase. These are signals of active aggression.

If you see your dog’s ears prick up and their body go very still, it’s best to move to get in front of your dog as quickly as possible or grab their collar if they aren’t already on a leash. This is often a sign they are about to give chase or go after something.

Pricked Ears With A Relaxed Body

If a dog has pricked ears but no signs of tension in their body, they are likely just alert and curious. They may be interested in playing or giving you their full focus while training. They may also be staring at the door, waiting for you to come home from work.

Their body movements should be relaxed, with a tail in a neutral position or wagging with excitement. Their mouth may be lolling open with no signs of tightness or growling.

This ear position is most common when you make a sound in the kitchen that could signify treats. You may also see it when you pick up a ball. It means you have their full attention, and they are expecting something positive, such as a walk, playtime, or a snack. It may also signify they spot something interesting, such as a dog at the dog park they want to play with.

Pricked Ears And Tilted Head

At one point or another, we have all made funny noises just to see our dogs prick their ears and tilt their heads to the side in confusion. Yes, they definitely do look puzzled, and it is adorable. But the head tilting does not really signal confusion. Dogs tilt their heads so they can angle their ears to better capture the unfamiliar sound and try to make sense of it. 

It’s the same as when you lean forward and turn your head to the side if you can’t quite hear what someone is saying.

One Ear Pricked And One Ear Folded or Droopy

We all love the adorable scruffy look of a dog with only one erect ear. Often this means that a dog is simply still in the process of having both ears standing up. This is not part of dog ear communication, but just the different rates at which cartilage in the ear flaps is hardening.

Occasionally, however, the cartilage in one ear may never fully harden, which means your dog will always have one folded ear and one erect ear. Personally, we love the happy-go-lucky, lopsided look this gives a dog!

You can see this article if you have a young dog wondering if or when their dogs ears will stand up.

However, suppose your adult dog suddenly develops one droopy ear that is swollen. In that case, it can mean that they have an abscess or atrial hematoma, so it’s time to pay the vet another visit. Cases of ear mites can also cause erect ears to suddenly droop, so be sure get your dog checked out if this happens.

Ears Pulled Back Against the Head

When a dog pulls their ears tight and down against their head, it is a sign of stress. Ears drawn tightly back against the head are often accompanied by:

  • A tense, lowered tail, often tucked under the body.
  • A tight, closed mouth with stress signals such as lip licking, yawning, raising the lips to show teeth, and vocalizations such as whining, crying, or growling.
  • A cowering body position, such as lying down, making themselves look as small as possible, or possibly rolling over to expose their belly.
  • Usually, dogs with lowered ears will also turn their heads away and avoid eye contact.

In these situations, lowered ears pulled back can be a sign of submission, as when a dog feels intimidated by another dog or by a human that is angry at them.

We often see pictures on social media of dogs with “guilty” faces, with their ears pulled down and usually avoiding their owner’s gaze. This is not because they feel guilty but because they sense their human’s anger and are trying to appease that anger by looking as submissive as possible.

Related stress signals that pet parents often overlook are mouth movements such as lip licking, panting, or yawning. If your dog is giving these subtle signals, and they have their ears pulled back, it means they are feeling uncomfortable and nervous.

When ears pulled pack is accompanied by cowering, a tucked tail, or shaking, it’s a sign of fear. Dogs may whine, cry, or try to hide. This is common when dogs have noise phobia and are faced with fireworks or storms. You will also see any other dog feeling extreme fear and anxiety.

When Pulled Back Ears Mean That A Dog is Aggressive

You should note that a dog with ears pulled back is not always a dog that you should try to touch or pet. Often, a dog with their ears pasted back against their head is showing signs of fear or anxiety aggression. This means much of their body language can look like they are fearful, but they may snap and bite because of the stress they are feeling.

A dog with fear aggression will usually have all the symptoms of a dog that is just scared or anxious. The only difference may be more lip movements licking, growling, and snarling.

You can often see this in a dog that is resource guarding their food or favorite toy. Resource guarding is not true aggression but actually a sign that a dog is anxious over losing something that belongs to them. Nevertheless, it can still lead to a nasty bite.

Yes, these are anxious and stressed dogs, but reaching out to touch a dog in a fear-aggressive state is one of the reasons people get bitten. It is vital to get professional help with anxious-aggressive dogs.

Flattened Ears And Disappointment

Another overlooked meaning of dog ear positions is when they signal a dog is disappointed. One study found that dogs who expected a treat but didn’t get one often let their ears droop. They often half close their eyes or give a slow blink drop their jaw slightly open, and lick their noses. These are all signs that your dog is very disappointed.

Ears Pulled Down, But Not Close Against The Head

Similar to the signs of doggy disappointment are signs of sadness or even depression. Typically ears drooping down but not pulled stiffly against the head are a sign that a dog is sad or bored. In these times, your dog may choose to curl up in a ball and sleep. They may be listless and refuse to eat. The most common times this happens is if a dog has been left at a shelter or if their favorite human has gone away for a few days. This is a good time to play a game of fetch or go for a walk.

Neutral Ears

Finally, the most common position your dog’s ears should be in is the neutral position. This is when they are angled to the side, not pricked forward. They also do not droop or pull flat against the head. This is a sign that your dog is relaxed and taking it easy.

Final word

Perhaps one of many arguments against cropped ears is that dog ear positions mean something and are crucial to how dogs communicate. Whether it’s fear, relaxation, alertness, or aggression, a dog’s ears are highly expressive and each position has meaning.

Dog Ear Position Chart

MeaningRelated body languageEar position
Ear infection or medical issues(ear mites etc.)Head shaking and lopsided head carriage (carrying one ear lower).Ears are usually neutral, but may droop
Alert for chase or attackBody still and tensePossible “stalking”postureTail stiff and horizontal or upHard gaze an fixated eye contact on “prey” or threatClosed, tense mouth. Possible snarling.Possible raise hackles.Ears pricked up and angled  forward
Alert for a reward (hopeful or excited)RelaxedNeutral or wagging tailMay be drooling or have a relaxed mouth. Tongue may “loll”Eyes glued to anticipated rewardEars pricked up and angled forward
RelaxedBody is relaxed with no signs of tensionDog is likely lying downEars are in neutral position, usually facing the sides.
DisappointedSemi-closing eyes or slow blinkingLicking nose’Jaw droppingEars droop or flatten against the head.
Unfamiliar soundTilting head to the sideEars pricked forward
Cartilage in both ears has not hardened to keep both erect.One ear floppy and ear up
Stress, anxiety, fear, or anxious-aggressionA tense, lowered tail, often tucked under their body.A tight, closed mouth with stress signals such as licking the lips, yawning, raising the lips to show teeth, and vocalizations such as whining, crying, or growling. A cowering body position.Usually avoid eye contact.Ears pulled back

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.