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Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

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Dog Behavior By Ben Team 5 min read May 17, 2021 1 Comment

Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads

Head-tilting is easily one of the most adorable things dogs do. They often tilt their head one way or the other in response to their owner’s voice, but they also do so in response to a variety of other stimuli.

The question is: Why do they do it?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear-cut answer. Nobody knows exactly why our pups tilt their head this way or that.

But there are a few pretty good hypotheses that may explain the behavior. We’ll talk about a few of the most likely explanations below!

Dog Head-Tilting in Action

If you’re a new dog owner, who’s not familiar with head-tilting behavior, just watch the following video.

Be warned, this is not only adorable but also hysterical, so don’t try to watch it on the down-low if you’re at work and your boss is lurking. I chuckled out loud!

Likely Explanations: Five Potential Reasons Your Dog Tilts Her Head

Until dogs evolve the ability to talk, we’ll likely never know exactly why they tilt their heads, but it is probably due to one or more of the following reasons.

1. Getting a Better Look

Because dogs have a long muzzle jutting out from the front of their face, they don’t have a completely unobstructed field of view. Head-tilting may have arisen as a way for them to get a better view of things.

You can see analogous behaviors in several other types of animals, including lizards and birds. However, in these cases, the animal usually moves its head from side to side, rather than tilting it.

Some of the best evidence supporting this theory comes from an internet survey conducted by Stanley Coren – a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia and a contributor for Psychology Today.  

The survey simply tried to determine how prevalent head-tilting behavior is, and whether it correlated with a dog’s muzzle length.

The theory behind the survey is that dogs with longer muzzles have trouble seeing their owner’s entire face (especially the mouth section, which is responsible for lots of the visual signals dogs monitor when looking at us).

But by rotating their heads a bit, dogs can move their muzzle out of the way, and see their owner’s face more completely.

If dogs tilt their heads to help see around their muzzle, you’d expect dogs with longer snouts to do so more often, and those with shorter snouts to do so less frequently. In fact, that’s exactly what Coren’s data suggests.

He found that 71% of dogs with medium to long muzzles tilted their heads frequently, while only 52% of brachycephalic dogs (those with short faces and muzzles) did so.

2. Gathering More Sonic Data

Dogs hear pretty well in most respects. In fact, they can hear a much wider range of frequencies than humans can.

But their hearing isn’t perfect, and dogs often have trouble determining the origin of sounds.

Accordingly, some dogs may tilt their heads to help pinpoint the spot where a sound is coming from. Certain dogs may perform this behavior more or less depending on their ear shape type.

Personally, I’ve noticed that my pooch most commonly tilts her head in response to unusual or strange sounds. For example, she often tilts her head and peers curiously at the power windows whenever I raise or lower them.

3. Simple Curiosity

A few authorities have suggested that head-tilting behavior may simply indicate that your pup is curious about something.

If this is true, it means dongs don’t tilt their heads for a specific reason; instead, it would just mean that head-tilting behavior is just a behavioral quirk that occurs when your pooch is trying to figure something out.

4. Learned Behavior

Because head-tilting behavior is off-the-charts cute, owners likely end up reinforcing the behavior (either accidentally or on purpose).

In other words, if you give your dog love, praise, treats or attention when she tilts her head, she’ll be more likely to do so again in the future.

This is essentially the philosophy behind using positive reinforcement for obedience training.   

5. Medical Issues

Unfortunately, head-tilting behavior can also signal the presence of a medical problem.

A few of the most common conditions that can cause head-tilting behavior include:

  • Ear infections
  • Ear injury
  • Neurological disorders
  • Thiamine deficiency
  • Ingestion of toxic medications or substances

Just be sure to contact your vet if you suspect that your dog’s head-tilting behavior is related to illness or injury.

This is especially important if your dog begins exhibiting any other symptoms, such as fever, apparent dizziness, or changes in energy level or appetite.

One other important thing to look for is unusual eye movements – especially repetitive, seemingly uncontrollable movements (a condition called nystagmus).

The combination of nystagmus and head-tilting behavior is often associated with vestibular disease.

You can see an example of nystagmus in the video below.

How to Make Your Dog Tilt Her Head

As you undoubtedly already know, head-tilting behavior is pretty darn cute. But you may not know that some dogs can learn to perform the behavior on command – like a trick.

It’s certainly not an easy command to teach your pet, and some dogs will likely get the idea more easily than others, but there’s little harm in trying.

If nothing else, it’ll give you yet another opportunity to bond with your dog – and that’s always a good thing.

Essentially, you’ll use the same type of positive-reinforcement technique you would to teach your dog any other command:

  1. Gather a few of your dog’s favorite training treats (or her favorite toy, if you use that as positive reinforcement instead).
  2. Try to elicit the head-tilting behavior by saying “tilt!” (or whatever word you’d like) to your dog. It’ll probably help to use a funny, odd or high-pitched voice while doing so.
  3. When she tilts her head, praise her (“good girl!”) and give her a treat (or her toy).
  4. Lather, rinse, and repeat to drive the lesson home.

***

Again, nobody knows exactly why dogs tilt their heads. In fact, it is possible (perhaps even likely) that dogs do so for a combination of reasons.

Personally, I find the hearing-oriented explanations most compelling, but as with so many other things, it’s probably more complicated than it seems.

Does your dog tilt her head a lot?

Have you noticed anything that makes her do so?

Tell us about your experiences – as well as any theories you have about the phenomenon – in the comments below!

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Written by

Ben Team

Ben is the senior content editor for K9 of Mine and has spent most of his adult life working as a wildlife educator and animal-care professional. Ben’s had the chance to work with hundreds of different species, but his favorite animals have always been dogs. He currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his spoiled-rotten Rottweiler named J.B. Chances are, she’s currently giving him the eyes and begging to go to the park.

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Tracy

My dog has always been an extremely cute head tilter. But he does the most at new or strange sounds. Like he’s trying to figure them out. But when I talk to him in my high, up beat voice, he does it too. I think it’s perhaps a concentration thing too. I always say he’s an excellent listener 🙂

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