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Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

By Lynne Miller

It’s enough to melt your heart, or at least put a smile on your face. When your dog momentarily tilts her head to one side, you want to give her a big hug, or a special treat to let her know you think she’s amazing and adorable.

While the head tilt makes dog owners feel warm and fuzzy toward their canine companions, researchers are at a loss to explain with certainty why dogs tilt their heads or, for that matter, why only certain dogs make the gesture. While there are no definitive explanations, the experts have plenty of theories.

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads to One Side?

Head tilting is a sign of intelligence, says Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist and professor emeritus at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

He speculates that head-tilting dogs tend to be more sensitive than other pups, are highly attuned to sounds, and have a close emotional bond with their owners.

Of all the many possible explanations for this behavior, Dodman’s top theory is that head tilting is simply a dog’s response to a puzzling or curious human statement.

“It could just be a quizzical expression to something they don’t quite understand,” says Dodman, founder of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts. “People do exactly the same thing. It’s like a human shrug.”

Dr. Mary Burch, an animal behaviorist and director of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen program, thinks the head tilt is a dog’s way of showing interest or curiosity about a sound.

“This is the one I'd bet my money on,” she says. “Some dogs will tilt their heads when they are watching other dogs that are making noises on television.”

Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads to Hear or Understand Us Better?

Though dogs have a keen sense of hearing, they may tilt their heads in order to better hear words and phrases that mean something to them, Burch says.

“Clearly, the canine sense of hearing is so acute that a dog can hear perfectly well when we are speaking to her without putting one ear closer to the speaker,” Burch says. “However, (the tilted head) could enhance listening for certain phrases such as, ‘Go for a ride?’”

Indeed, dogs recognize words that have desirable outcomes, such as walks, meals, or toys, says Dr. John Ciribassi, a veterinary behaviorist with Chicagoland Veterinary Behavior Consultants. He thinks dogs react to the words by tilting their head, a possible sign they are concentrating on what’s being said and hoping to recognize more words.

“I don't think it is breed-related, since I see it in many diverse breeds and I don't believe it is related to ear carriage,” he says.

Dogs can be trained to cock their heads, Dodman notes. He knows a trainer who found the gesture so doggone cute, that she taught her pup to tilt her head on cue.

Our four-legged friends may tilt their heads if the behavior has been reinforced, Burch says. For example, the dog tilts her head and her owner rewards her with a smile or treat.

Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads to See Us Better?

While psychologist Stanley Coren thinks there are many reasons for the head tilt, he maintains that some dogs, particularly those with big muzzles, are more likely to do it so they can have a full view of our faces when we are speaking to them. According to this theory, the prominent muzzles block their view of the lower part of our faces, so they compensate by tilting their heads.

After conducting an online survey of nearly 600 dog owners, Coren found 71 percent of the owners of the dogs with larger muzzles reported that their dogs often tilted their heads when paying attention to humans, compared to just 52 percent of the owners of dogs with brachycephalic heads, or flatter faces, including Pugs, Boston Terriers, and Pekingese. 

“That (about) 20 percent difference shows that visual field differences play a role,” says Coren, a professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. “However, that difference is not large enough to account for all head tilting behaviors in dogs. Obviously there must be other factors in play.”

Should I Be Concerned If My Dog Tilts Her Head?

In some cases, there is a medical reason for head tilting. If your dog frequently tilts her head, it could indicate she feels dizzy and imbalanced. This sensation of vertigo is associated with disorders of the vestibular system. Composed of portions of the brain and ear, the vestibular system governs an animal’s sense of balance.

Veterinarians most often see this condition in older dogs, Dodman says. This type of head tilting looks different from a normal head tilt. While a healthy animal will cock its head for a moment or two, a dog with a vestibular disorder has “one ear close to the ground on a regular basis,” he says. “The head stays in that position. They are listing to the left or right, like a boat tilting in one direction.”

Ear injuries, brain disease, a thiamine deficiency, or even toxic antibiotics in the ear are among the many factors that can contribute to vestibular disorders.

If you think something’s not right, take your pet to the veterinarian, who can perform a complete physical exam and check your dog’s ear canal.

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