(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)
Being able to read your dog’s body language can be a very useful skill. It can clue you in to when your dog might be feeling anxious or fearful, excited, happy or relaxed. And sometimes being able to recognize body language early can help you keep your dog happy and calm.
Some of the most expressive dog body parts are the ears. Different breeds obviously have very differently shaped ears, but the basics of ear positioning can still help you read your dog. Watch your dog at a time when he is obviously relaxed and notice the lack of tension in the ears. Compare this to how your dog’s ears look when you pick up his favorite toy – they probably come up and forward a bit, indicating some level of excitement or arousal. Contrast that to when you first come home to greet your dog – many dogs when greeting have “appeasing ears”, which means they are in a lower, softer position than normal. And if you have ever seen your dog very afraid, you may have seen the ears pointed back and plastered to his head.
These ear positions can be great indicators of your dog’s emotional state, and if you notice them, you can intervene when necessary. For example, my Australian Shepherd tends to get over-excited easily and can be reactive when he sees other dogs on walks. When we go for a walk, I watch his ears carefully, because they will often alert me to when he has spotted a dog that I might not have seen yet. If I see his ears go up and forward (aroused/excited), then I know to scan the environment, call him back to my side and reinforce for noticing the other dog without barking like a mad man. If I fail to notice the ears, he may get more and more aroused, and that might spill over into a reactive display.
He also gets very aroused when people he doesn’t know well come into his house. If I left it to him, an appropriate greeting would be to charge at them barking and jumping on them, crazily excited. Since most guests don’t appreciate that, I put him on leash and watch the ears. I reward him for looking at the guest with appeasing ears (the slightly back and lowered ears). When he is doing that, then he can greet the guest (with a toy in his mouth for those who don’t appreciate being licked).
While taking the whole of your dog’s body language into account is important, try going on ear watch for awhile and listen to what they’re telling you.