Introduction: It’s All About Communication
We’ve all seen our dogs do that cute little trick where they look up at you and then turn their head to the side. For some reason, this little turn of the head makes people lose their minds. It is definitely one of the more cute and endearing dog behaviors.
However, a little common sense tells us that this behavior must mean something. Dogs seem most likely to make this little movement when a human is trying to communicate with them. As a result, we can say with some confidence that this behavior is communication-related.
Does Anyone Really Know Why They Do This?
The answer to that question is both a yes and a no. Do experts and scientists know, with 100% certainty, why dogs tilt their heads? No. Do they have a pretty good idea or why dogs tilt their heads? Yes. There is a little guesswork, but most of it seems to make sense.
That being said, there could be no way to be certain without telepathy. Unless you know of some method that will allow us to read a dogs’ mind, we will have to reason based on the information that we have.
How We Unknowingly Train Our Dogs to Do This
In many cases, humans may be unknowingly training dogs to tilt their heads. The main driver of this factor is the fact that humans find this behavior to be very cute. This brings a positive reaction such as affection, and the behavior is reinforced.
The essence of all dog training is to reward the behaviors that you want to see while discouraging the behaviors that you don’t want to see. This one falls somewhere in the middle because it is neither positive nor negative.
Nevertheless, a dog will still learn that a tilt of the head at the right moment brings affection and maybe even a
Head Tilting May Be a Simple Communication Gesture
The most common theory is that head-tilting in dogs is just a way to try and get our attention. When they want to communicate something to us, they have to try a little harder than we do. We have verbal languages, while they mainly use body language.
If you want to understand your canine, it is important to remember that they want to communicate with you. As you are learning to read their behaviors and telltale signs, your dog is probably learning the same kinds of things about you.
Once a dog notices the incredible complexity of human speech, they are naturally awed. They have many primitive ways to communicate with one another, but a language is above their level. For this reason, language may fascinate the animal and cause them to tilt their head as a show of interest.
Many people have noticed that a dog most frequently tilts their head when their owner is speaking to them. This suggests that a head-tilt is nothing more than an expression, like a shrug or a nod of the head. It might be a natural reaction to a feeling of curiosity.
Certainly, dogs do look pretty curious when exhibiting this behavior so this explanation would make sense. Still, very little academic research has been done on this particular subject, so it is something of a grey area.
Some People Consider Head-Tilting to Be a Sign of High Intelligence
Although this one is just an unproven theory, some researchers have theorized that head-tilting dogs are more intelligent than others. This theory is based on the idea that head-tilting is a curious, questioning behavior.
The idea is that an intelligent animal will naturally be more inquisitive. They will have more of a natural desire to learn and grow as compared to other dogs. When you look at the situation in this way, a dog with its head tilted is kind of like a child who asks a lot of questions.
Although a child who asks a lot of questions may be a little bit irritating, it is also a sign that the child is interested in and engaged with the world around them. With dogs, it may very well be the same kind of situation.
This theory comes from Dr. Nicholas Dodman. Dr. Dodman is a veterinarian who focuses on behavior and is also a professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts. If you are interested to know more about this theory, he’s the guy to ask.
Your Dog May Be Trying to Butter You Up
Dogs understand the world around them by understanding simple concepts. These are usually based on a mix of inborn instinct and learned knowledge. For instance, when they learn what the word “sit” means, they come to understand that this behavior brings praise.
As such, dogs can also learn how to use your natural tendencies to their advantage. For instance, if your dog has made a mess of the house, they may try to act as cute as possible. Why? Because they know this act has the potential to get them out of trouble!
I have always advocated a middle-of-the-road approach to discipline. If you think that your dog is trying to pull this kind of trick, don’t get angry or hit them. That is probably not going to help at all. Instead, be calm and assertive as you correct the behavior.
Head Tilting May Be Done to Improve Hearing
When your dog tilts their head, it may be nothing more than a way of moving their ears to hear more clearly. Research indicates that, although a dogs’ hearing is many times better than our own, they sometimes have a problem with telling directions based on sound alone.
This makes it a very lucky thing that dogs have such an amazing sense of smell. Without this, their ability to track would be greatly reduced. Because of this lack of spatial hearing (“hearing directions” might be a good term for the concept), dogs need to adjust their ears.
Dogs have been observed to tilt their heads when trying to hear a distant noise more clearly, so there could be something to this theory. Since head-tilting is usually a reaction to a certain sound, there is a good case for this theory as a primary explanation.
When it comes to language, dogs are in a weird place. They have far more ability to comprehend language than most animals. However, they cannot communicate in the same way that humans do. They understand, but only partially.
As such, your dog may be straining to hear your words so that they can pick out the words that they know and separate them from the words they don’t know. The ears of a dog have to be turned to the right direction, much like the antenna on a radio.
Some of this will also depend on the shape of your dogs’ ears. Dogs with floppy ears will probably show this behavior more often because their ear flaps hang down and cover the ear canal. To fully utilize those ears, they almost have to flap them around.
If you think about it, you will realize that humans also engage in this behavior. Haven’t you ever tilted your head and cupped one hand to your ear in an effort to hear something more clearly? There is a good chance that your dog is just trying to do the same.
Head Tilting May Be Done to Improve Vision
Some researchers have hypothesized that dogs tilt their heads for no other reason than to get a better look at something. These researchers say that the dog is forced to turn their heads
in this way because their snout can partially obstruct their vision.
Some research has indicated that this tilting behavior is more common in long-snouted dogs, so there seems to be good evidence behind this theory as well. Dogs with longer snouts displayed this behavior 71% of the time, as opposed to 52% for short-snouted dogs.
If you want to get an idea of what the world looks like from their perspective, try this: Take a mason jar (pint size is probably best) and put it over your mouth. Now hold it in place and look up. You will notice that a big chunk of your sight picture is obstructed.
Head Tilting Could Be a Sign of a Medical Problem
As everyone knows, a quick tilt of the head can be very endearing. However, the dog should not keep their head in this position for very long. If they do, your dog might be dealing with some kind of ear problem. Medical treatment will probably be required.
If your dog is walking around with their head tilted, or if they spend most of their time with their head tilted, your dog probably has a problem. They look funny when they walk around with their head in an awkward position, but it isn’t much fun for them.
In a situation such as this, the dog feels the need to walk around with his head cocked because his balance is off. Since the inner ear of a dog plays a huge role in keeping the body well-balanced, a disorder of that organ will throw their entire equilibrium off.
If your dog is suffering from this kind of problem, you will most likely notice them weaving and bobbing from side to side, moving their heads all over the place in a futile effort to regain some semblance of control. Be patient with them since a loss of balance can be a scary thing.
If your dog is known to be a little bit of a biter, take a little bit of caution when approaching them. If they are in a sick or weakened state, this becomes all the more important. A frightened dog will usually be much quicker to lash out at you.
The most common medical cause of this behavior would be an ear infection. Other maladies of the outer and inner ear might also cause your dog to do this. Sometimes, ear medicine can cause an infection if the dog happens to be allergic to its ingredients.
This is a perfect example of why you should always take care when choosing a veterinarian. Even if you have to drive an hour or more, I would say it’s worth the extra trouble. I have often gone out of my way to patronize only those vets who have proven themselves to me.
In some cases, excessive head-tilting may even indicate a type of brain disease, so make sure you get it checked right away. Brain diseases are no joke and are often difficult or impossible to reverse. Permanent damage could easily result from this, and in short order.
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Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads? (Video)
Overall, this behavior does seem to be inextricably linked with several canine behavior factors. The way that dogs use this behavior makes it obvious that they are adjusting their head so as to better see and hear the world around them.
In addition to all these things, a dog may do this for no other reason than the fact that it wants some attention from their master. While some dog owners might discourage this behavior, I believe it is better to encourage the behavior.
Why? Because it is clearly an attempt at communication, and good communication will make for a closer bond between you and your dog. This, in turn, will lead both dog and human to work around each other’s needs and wants. Such is the basis of a sound friendship.
"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret