The eyes may be the mirror to the soul, and careful observations of both the mouth and the tail can yield all sorts of information about a dog’s intentions and emotional state, but the ears are a different matter altogether. The ears are more challenging to read and understand, and they usually have to be viewed in conjunction with other visual signals to make a useful interpretation. That is especially true when the ears are pulled back or held close to the head.
Ears that are tucked close to the head often indicate negative emotions. One possibility is sadness, which often results in ears that are tucked down close to the sides of the head. Dogs may show this when a favorite person departs. I once saw a dog pull his ears back like this when he saw some of his dog buddies playing but he couldn’t join them because he was on a stay.
Ears that are pulled back often indicate fearfulness, especially if combined with other facial signals associated with this emotion, such as a fear grimace in which the corners of the dog’s mouth are pulled back or dilated pupils. Sometimes dogs put their ears back when they are nervous, and that will often be combined with tongue flicks, panting, tension in the body, or other signs of anxiety. This is a common behavior in dogs who must be in the car but dislike road trips, or dogs who are overwhelmed by too many children at once.
When a dog’s ears are in their natural resting position, it typically indicates that a dog is comfortable in the situation. When dogs greet each other, it is common to see one dog maintain his natural ear posture, suggesting that he is at ease, while another dog puts them back, indicating the opposite. Putting the ears back in this context may be an appeasement behavior.
There are at least two more possible meanings associated with ears that are pulled back. Dogs who are about to bite often pin their ears tightly to the head. It has been suggested that this may simply protect them from injury by keeping them out of the way of any teeth in the vicinity that mean business. Finally, males will pull their ears back when they are courting a female, and this action is one of many that means he is interested in her.
The motion of pulling the ears back is quite obvious, but the meaning is not always so apparent.