Tag Archives: Stanley Coren

Creature Feature: All eyes on the ears

31 Aug

Dog owners can often be heard saying they wish their pets could talk. They don’t talk like we do, but dogs do communicate with us through their body language.

Last week’s Creature Feature looked at the “tail language” of dogs. Today, let’s see what dogs say with their ears and eyes.

What's Ashley saying here?

Stanley Coren, a psychologist and animal behavior expert, explains the language of ears and eyes in How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication. Unlike humans, whose ears are in a fixed position limiting their usefulness in expressing emotions, dogs can send a variety of messages by flattening, perking up, pulling back and flickering their ears.

“Pricked ears,” or those that stand up and sometimes look like pointed satellite receivers (think German shepherd or Chihuahua ears), are easier to read than floppy or “lopped ears,” Coren says. Signals from lopped ears (like those of Labrador retrievers and beagles) can be ambiguous because the movement is more subtle — or muted — and less visible than pricked-ear movement.

He also says that ear signals have to be read along with signals from other body parts, such as the mouth, to put them into context. In his book, Coren explains what different ear positions mean.

I hear ya

■ Ears erect or slightly forward: The dog is alert or gathering information about the environment. This is the “what’s that?” signal. If the dog’s mouth is slightly open and relaxed, and his head slightly tilted, he’s probably noting that something is really interesting.

■ Ears pulled back and flat against the head: If accompanied by a relaxed mouth and a high tail, this is a sign of friendliness. But this ear signal can indicate anxiety if the dog is also baring his teeth.

■ Ears pulled back slightly so that they look like they’re spread sideways: A sign of ambivalence that means the dog doesn’t like something, wants to run or may fight.
“This position of the ears indicates that the animal may quickly turn from uneasy suspicion to aggression, or to fear and escape behaviors,” Coren says.

■ Ears flickering, usually slightly forward, then quickly down or slightly back: Flickering in this manner signals indecision that may contain a fearful and submissive aspect. It could also be read as pacifying, as if the dog were saying “I’m just looking the situation over, so please don’t take offense.”   

Regarding eye language, the direction of a person’s gaze can tell us if someone is paying attention, interested, bored or threatening. The same can be said of a dog’s gaze, Coren says, explaining three ways that dogs speak with their eyes.

■ Direct eye-to-eye stare: This a threat or an expression of dominance. Between dogs, a dominant dog will use it to say he’s the boss or tell another dog to back off.

Coren points out that dogs also use the direct stare to control the behavior of their owners. One example is when a dog sits and stares at you at the dinner table, looking so “hopeful” or “pleading” that you give him a bite of your food.

“When you respond by giving him what he wants, the dog interprets that as a submissive gesture on your part.”

■ Eyes turned away to avoid direct contact: The opposite of the stare, this can be seen as submission or sometimes fear. But it can also indicate boredom or a break in attention.

■ Blinking: This breaks a dominance stare and shows submission, but isn’t as submissive as when a dog averts his eyes fully. Blinking also can be part of a greeting ritual or a signal of friendliness.

Creature Feature appears each Wednesday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This column was published July 6, 2011.