What does it mean when a dog’s ears are held back?

October 27, 2022
Medically reviewed by Nicole Wanner, DVM

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A dog has few ways to communicate with its owner, and the ears can tell an entire story if a person interprets it correctly.

This blog explores what it means when dogs’ ears are held back and other forms of canine ear communication.


Dog body language is important to understand for a pet’s mental and physical health and its owners. Often, people unfamiliar with a dog will wrongly interpret dog body language and approach them with negative consequences. Most of the time the dog takes the brunt of the retaliation even though the human misinterprets their signaling.

Usually, the ears are read in conjunction with other visual signals, such as tail wagging, laying chest down and butt up, rolling on their backs, and many more.

Generally, a dog’s ears can measure its level of engagement during times of anger, arousal, fear, happiness, and of course, aggression. Learning a dog’s communications and positions through the ears can improve the health and relationships owners and dogs share.


When a dog's ears are held back it can convey a number of different emotions. Most importantly, if the dog is showing additional body language cues like barking, showing teeth, posturing, stiffness, or whisker twitching the dog is most likely in an aggressive mindset.

On the other hand, ears pinned back can also show the dog is ill, injured, or stressed. Pinned-backed ears on a dog is a sign that something is off in your pet's world and needs immediate attention.

Pinned back

Ears that are pinned in conjunction with barking, growling, stiffness, and teeth are a sign of a dog who is ready to attack or defend.

Slightly Forward Still Relaxed

Ears that move somewhat forward but remain in a relaxed position may signal that the dog, while still friendly, is becoming edgier and alert to something in its immediate environment.

Pushed Forward w/ Teeth

Ears angled far forward can be a sign of play arousal, but they can also indicate aggression arousal, especially if the body is stiff and the mouth is openly showing the teeth. Be weary of an animal showing this posture, giving a person a clear signal not to approach.

Up and Relaxed

When a dog’s ears are up and relaxed, it shows that the dog is calm, friendly, and approachable. Dog owners need to learn what their dog’s ears look like in a neutral position to acknowledge any hinted changes in emotional or physical well-being

Titled Back

Ears tilted back is often a sign of stress or fear and possibly a submissive state. But – caution here – a dog holding its ears back could also become fear aggressive.


Ear Position Possible Temperament
Up and Relaxed (Neutral) Calm, friendly, relaxed
Slightly Forward, Still Relaxed (Attentive) Still friendly, becoming edgy about something around them
Push Forward and Showing Teeth (Aggressive) Potential for anger, aggression, and or arousal
Tilted Back (Intimidated) Fear, illness, injury, stress (danger of fear aggression)
Pinned Back with Teeth, Barking, Growling, Facial Expressions, and Stiffness Combined with other signals/fearful and nervous (Ready to attack and or defend)


If your dogs ears are hinting at a sign of illness, the best thing to do is to get in touch with your veterinarian, as they can diagnose the issue and advise on treatment. 

If you believe their ears are hinting at a behavioral issue, the best course of action may be to get in touch with a dog trainer or dog behaviorist. 

They might suggest using training in combination with either prescription medications or natural supplements like CBD. CBD has shown a lot of promise in its ability to naturally help with issues like anxiety and aggression.


Never approach a dog you do not know. These are suggestions to what a dog may be thinking based on ear placement and posture. Unfortunately, circumstances do not always align with this table. Animals have a mind of their own and, if pushed, will become highly aggressive and can cause harm.

Canine body language is deeper than just a wagging tail and a wet tongue bouncing around playfully. While these are great emotional signals, a dog owner needs to be aware of the other emotional cues. For instance, the dog’s body language displays alertness, anger, anxiety, boredom, playfulness, relief, and vulnerability.

Canine ear emotional signals can include but are not limited to danger, fear, courting, nervousness, and sadness. Once again, every dog has a different set of ears to non-verbally express themselves, so the owners need to know their dog’s signals.


Biscuit's Story

I was unprepared for what would happen to my dog, Biscuit. 

Ever since she was a puppy, she’d spend her days running and playing. I’d take her on walks, to the beach, and dog parks.

Unfortunately, at age 10, she started to limp after trips to the beach. It broke my heart to see her in pain doing what she loved the most. I started feeding her a raw food diet and added high-quality supplements to ensure her nutritional needs were met. Unfortunately, while she loved the food, the limping persisted.

I went to the vet, who looked over Biscuit and said she was likely limping due to joint inflammation. She gave us something to help. This worked well at first. Biscuit was moving around more freely, and was limping less. 

However, a few days later, It was to my absolute shock that she…

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