Many dogs have a delightful habit of tilting their heads when spoken to or when they hear certain types of noises. Most humans find the action adorable. But why do dogs tilt their heads?
The dog head tilt is not fully understood, and not much research has been done into its cause. There are a few possibilities that many experts agree probably contribute, and it's possible that more than one or all of them play a part.
Dogs May Tilt Their Heads to Hear Better
Dogs have specialized ear structures that enable them to narrow down where sounds are coming from. This includes the outer ear and the ear flaps. Tilting their heads when they hear a new noise might help dogs to pinpoint the sound's origin better.
Dogs May Tilt Their Heads to Help Determine What We Are Saying
You've probably seen your dog tilt her head when you ask her if she wants to go for a walk, go for a car ride, or visit the dog park. While dogs can't understand all of the words we say to them, there are definitely some that they recognize from repetition. Sometimes, they may tilt their heads in concentration, to see if they can pick out some words that are important to them.
Dogs May Tilt Their Heads to See Us Better
When we are listening to someone speak, we evaluate more than their words to understand what they're telling us. We listen to the tone of voice and watch facial features, among other things, to infer the other person's meaning. Dogs are no different.
What is different is that many dogs can't see our entire face when they are looking directly at us. This is because of the fact that their muzzles extend from their faces, blocking their view of the lower part of a human face, including the mouth. Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C. hypothesized that this might be a large part of the reason that dogs tilt their heads when we are speaking to them; they are trying to see more of our face to better interpret our meaning (Stanley Coren, 2013).
Dr. Coren illustrates this point by suggesting that you hold your fist up to your nose, thus imitating what a dog's muzzle would be like, and see how much it limits your ability to see the lower face of someone who's talking to you. Now, tilt your head to the side while looking at the person and see how much better you can view their mouth.
Dr. Coren conducted an internet survey, asking people to quantify how often their dogs tilted their heads and what the facial structure of that dog was. His hypothesis was that dogs with flatter faces (brachycephalic breeds) would tilt their heads less than dogs with longer muzzles. The results of the study showed a statistically important difference: dogs with longer muzzles did tilt their heads more often than brachycephalic breeds (Stanley Coren, 2013).
Dogs May Tilt Their Heads Because It's Cute
It is well understood that dogs are social animals, and they repeat behaviors for which they receive rewards. When dogs tilt their heads in response to words or sounds, humans usually find it charming. We often say things like, "Aw," "You're so cute," and "Who's a cute girl," in positive, praising voices. Sometimes we give the dog a treat or are motivated to provide them with some other reward like a car ride or a walk. These positive reactions encourage dogs to repeat the behavior that garnered them.Note:
If your dog is tilting her head constantly, tilts it when there is no sound to trigger it, or shakes her head or scratches her ear while tilting her head, she could have a medical problem. Call your veterinarian right away.
- Stanley Coren, P. F. (2013, December 11). Why Do Some Dogs Tilt Their Heads When We Talk To Them. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201312/why-do-some-dogs-tilt-their-heads-when-we-talk-them
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