Your German Shepherd is excellent at taking cues from you. Whether through verbal communication, emotional state, or body language, your dog can read you. But can you read him? The answer is yes if you know what you are looking for. And in this article, we will talk specifically about German Shepherd ear positions and what they mean.
A German Shepherd’s ear positions can mean many things, such as feeling calm and neutral, relaxed, playful, submissive, alert, anxious, nervous, aggressive, excited, dominant, or frightened. A sudden movement of the ears can also mean the dog is communicating a change of state of mind.
For example, the ears will prick when aggressive or curious, whereas friendly intrigue leads the ears to a backward arching position.
Ultimately, your dog’s ears advertise his mood reasonably accurately. Still, each position can mean a few different things, and you have to look at the context before judging why your dog’s ears are in a specific position. Aside from covering why most German Shepherds have standing ears while occasionally some remain floppy, this article covers how to confirm the following:
- Your dog’s ears prick means your dog is alert or aggressive.
- Your German Shepherd puts back his ears as a social gesture.
- Your dog is frightened when he puts his ears down.
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Why Do German Shepherds Move Their Ears?
Before we get into the specific ear positions that indicate different emotions, we have to address why dogs move their ears. Unlike human ears, dogs’ ears are controlled by voluntary muscles. In other words, their ear movements aren’t involuntary reactions but instinctual attempts at communication.
German Shepherds move their ears to different positions mainly to indicate interest, submissiveness, or hostility. Several subtle movements indicate more complex emotions, and sometimes various emotions overlap in terms of their corresponding ear position.
You should look at your dog’s ear position alongside other body language and behavior cues in the context of his environment when deciding why he is behaving a certain way. If you go by ear positions alone, you might reach the wrong conclusion as each position has at least two explanations.
In the sections below, we will look at the general possibilities for each position your dog puts his ears. You will also learn a few other metrics to determine which one of the possibilities is the actual reason behind the dog’s ear movement.
Why Do German Shepherds Ears Stand Up?
Since most German Shepherds’ ears are pointy, yet others are floppy, one can get curious about what causes this difference.
German Shepherd’s ears stand up because of strong ear ligaments and their genetics. Unlike many dog breeds, a standard German Shepherd past teething has naturally standing ears. This shouldn’t be confused with pricked-up ears, which is prominent stiffening and has more to do with the canine’s mood.
Why Do German Shepherds Prick Their Ears?
Since German Shepherd Dogs’ ears aren’t generally floppy (aside from exceptions covered later in this post), you can barely notice the movement whenever their ears stand up. Still, it is essential to know why German Shepherds prick their ears.
German Shepherds prick their ears whenever they are alert, interested, excited, or curious about what they’re hearing. Since sudden alertness is sometimes followed by aggression in canines, German Shepherds’ ears also prick up when they’re about to attack if they feel threatened.
To know whether your dog is alert or aggressive, you should watch out for other signs, such as growling, showing the teeth, sniffing, and considering his current environment. Your dog may simply prick his ears forward and tilt his head if you make a peculiar sound.
Below is my dog Willow showing her pricked ears. You can see how alert and interested she is. She is focusing intently on something in the street, probably another dog passing by!
When a German Shepherd pricks up his ears and looks around or sniffs, you can conclude that he is alert. You should tighten your grip over his leash (and leash him if he’s not on the leash in the first place). This way, you can make sure he doesn’t become aggressive towards another dog or person unprompted. If the dog is growling or showing his teeth while his ears are pricked up, you should assume he’s in an aggressive state.
Please note that German Shepherds aren’t generally aggressive. However, if they are unsocialized, untrained, or previously mistreated, they may show hostility. This is through no fault of the dog, and only humans are to blame, as the dog just does not know how to behave.
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Why Do German Shepherds Put Their Ears Back?
Unlike pricked-up ears, this is a more subtle movement and is more noticeable when you’re looking directly at the dog’s ears. If you are attentive to details, you might have seen your dog put his ears back semi-regularly, especially in your presence. There’s a valid reason for this behavior.
German Shepherds put their ears back as a sign of submission or nervousness. However, this ear position isn’t a guarantee of these emotions as your dog can also bring his ears back when feeling social and happy but not particularly submissive. Look at the head position and tail for more clues.
If your dog is displaying submissiveness, his ears will go back, and he will also lower his head. In some instances, the dog puts his tails between his legs, which results in the related figure of speech. If other indicators are absent, but your dog’s ears are still pulled back, you can assume he is just in a social mood.
Below is another photo of Willow, taken moments after the first one. Notice how her ear positions have now changed from the erect position above, and she has put them back. She is feeling social and happy and is enjoying looking out of the window. I guess the interesting dog in question has passed by!
This is a breath of fresh air if you’re outside and around other dogs! The last thing you want is for your dog to be too nervous about socializing.
Why Do German Shepherds Put Their Ears Down?
Finally, there’s the flat ear position where the ears will appear tightly pinned back and held tight to the dog’s head. Many people believe this means the dog is sick. This is not entirely true – sickness may coincide with the position but isn’t usually the only cause. So, why do German Shepherds put their ears down?
German Shepherds put their ears down because of fear or anxiety. If your dog is afraid of his environment, another person or animal, or occasionally illness, you will notice his ears flattening and pinned tight to the head. Other signs include cowering, a hunched and rigid body, and whimpering.
Check out this dog in the below photo. His ears are down and pinned flat against his head. He is clearly anxious or afraid and hoping to be adopted.
What to Do When Your Dog Moves His Ears
Now that you know what each ear position means, let’s discuss how you should act whenever you notice such sudden shifts. The idea is to make your dog feel safe and ensure he is under control. After all, German Shepherds are pretty strong!
What to Do When Your Dog Pricks up His Ears
You should prioritize this movement above all others because it can mean your dog may be about to become aggressive towards another person or dog he feels threatened by, especially if he displays other body language referred to above. And just because your German Shepherd feels threatened by someone doesn’t mean the person is a threat.
Use a Leash
If you take your dog for a walk and notice his ears perk up even momentarily, you should put him on a leash. You most likely already have him on a leash as per dog walking best practices. If that’s the case, make sure you’re holding it tightly, and he can’t feel free to chase or succumb to his prey drive.
Pause and Disrupt
Your dog might act as an alarm and alert you to something he finds threatening. In some cases, this can be to protect you and your property. But in other instances, it can simply be a false alarm. You can interrupt your dog by engaging him whenever he pricks up his ears.
I wouldn’t advise using treats to hack your dog’s alertness, as that only incentivizes him to give false alarms. Simply changing the direction of your walk or bringing up a new activity can interrupt your canine’s focus sufficiently.
What to Do When Your Dog Puts His Ears Back
When your dog puts his ears back, he is either submissive, nervous, or just being friendly. Again, look for other signs, but you’ll soon get to know your own dog’s body language. Pay more attention to him and reward him with the affection and treats he deserves.
This ear movement isn’t a cause for concern. The only exception is if your dog displays this behavior around most strangers and you got him to guard your property! If that’s the case, you might need to bring him a sibling who is less of a social butterfly.
What to Do When Your Dog Puts His Ears Down
Whenever your dog shows fear by flattening his ears and tightly pinning them to his skull, you must make sure you provide him with enough attention and talk to him in a soothing voice to offer reassurance so he can calm down. If he behaves this way around a specific path on your walks or before certain activities, you get to make the call whether teaching him to get over those fears is worth it or not.
Willow has a strange fear of the sound of young school children when they’re on the sidewalk. She appears to despise their loud voices and high-pitched screams. She gets extremely anxious and will immediately put her ears down, cower the body, dig her claws into the ground, and pull on the leash to get away faster. I now choose to avoid walks around school times!
Why Does My German Shepherd Have Floppy Ears?
If you have seen German Shepherds and have their classic look in mind, you might be worried when you adopt a puppy and realize that his ears aren’t pointy. Soon you will find yourself asking, “why does my German Shepherd have floppy ears?”
German Shepherds may have floppy ears because the ligaments in their ears aren’t strong enough to make them stand up. The cartilage in puppies’ ears is still delicate, causing them to be floppy, but when puppies are about 5 months old and have finished teething, their ears should stand up.
Breed-defining characteristics are influenced by genetic variants such as the German Shepherd’s pointy ears. When they pass the teething stage, their ears stand up as long as their genetics aren’t mixed, producing different ear structures.
German Shepherds with completely floppy ears are rare, and those with partially floppy ears are more common. But if your dog is past twenty weeks and his ears are still floppy, it is likely because he isn’t a purebred. If you use taping or other procedures, make sure to take your vet’s advice and never prioritize your dog’s looks over his well-being.
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- Walk Your Dog With Love No-Pull Harness. I love this harness, and it’s what I use. There’s just no way your dog can pull. It’s easy to fit and inexpensive. You can read my full review here.
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- KONG Classic. I love KONG toys as they’re super tough and made for your German Shepherd’s teeth! The Classic Toy is fun to chew, chase, and fetch or even stuff with tasty treats.
- Big Barker Orthopedic Dog Bed. Scientifically proven to prevent and reduce joint pain in big dogs. The 10-year guarantee is also pretty cool too! You can also get it on Amazon here, but you don’t get the 10-year warranty.
My full list of recommendations can be found here.
German Shepherds are intelligent and expressive, and their ear position can display their mood. When trying to figure out what your dog is trying to tell you, the key takeaway is that you should always look at your dog’s overall body position.
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