Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads? The Behavior Explained

why do dogs tilt their heads
© katamount/Shutterstock.com

Written by Sharon Parry

Updated: October 14, 2022

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It’s one of the most adorable poses your pooch can adopt – the head tilt makes every dog lover’s heart melt. But, why do dogs tilt their heads at all? Are they trying to tell us something? Is it an indicator of their intelligence or personality, perhaps? We’ve delved into the latest research and expert opinion to bring you the low down on this irresistible poochy pose. The truth is probably not what you think!

Is Head-Tilting Normal For Dogs?

Most of the time, yes, head tilting is a perfectly normal part of dog communication. If your dog has a normal head tilt, it will be clearly focused on you and its eyes will be gazing at your face.  

Rarely, head tilting can be a sign that something is wrong. This is an abnormal head tilt. You will probably notice other behaviors at the same time that also indicate that there is something wrong with your dog. They may be subdued or appear to be in pain. If this happens, you need to see your vet.

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Dogs tilt their heads for a number of reasons and most of them are to do with communication. One reason a dog tilts its head is to demonstrate engagement with its owner–that it is listening to your communications with it. But that action can also mean other things. Here are the top reasons for that super-cute head tilt.

It helps them to hear better from all directions

Dogs have a different hearing to humans, and do tilt their heads to figure out what direction a sound is coming from. They can detect frequencies that we can’t and that is how silent dog whistles work. However, humans are better at hearing sounds that come from all directions. This is because our ears stick out quite a lot and funnel the sound into the ear canal and towards the eardrum. The opening of our ear canal has nothing blocking it.

Compare this to say, a Cocker Spaniel’s ear. They have gorgeous floppy ears that are great for looking cute in photos but not so great when it comes to hearing. To get over this, they perk up the top of their ear flaps and tilt their head so that they hang slightly away from the body and let the sound in. This works with sounds coming from in front of them. For sounds coming from behind them, they need to turn and tilt their head. Sounds coming from the side are quite easy for them to pick up and they may not tilt their head at all.

It helps them judge the distance of the sound

Creatures that hear with ‘ears’ have mechanisms for judging how far away the sound is. This is essential for animals living in the wild as the sound could be produced by a predator. To do this, the brain works out the difference in time between the sound reaching the two ears. Earflaps get in the way of this mechanism and so tilting the head helps a dog to work out how far away a sound is.

It helps them pick up frequencies

Most dogs are not able to recognize that many words but they can recognize the tone of voices. In particular, they soon learn to spot the ‘baby talk’ that most of us use when we are talking nicely to our dogs. They can tell this apart from the gruffer tones that we use when giving a command or reprimanding them. Our pooches soon learn that human ‘baby talk’ often results in good things like stroking, belly rubs, and treats. Human ‘baby talk’ is high-pitched and has noticeable inflections. To pick up these frequencies accurately, a lot of dogs will tilt their heads to lift their ear flaps so that they can focus on the sound information.

It helps them see better

There is some early research that suggests that some dogs may tilt their heads to see their owners better. Dogs get a lot of information from our facial expressions but their snout can get in the way of them being able to see all of our face. Some experts believe that they tilt their heads to get a better view.

There is still a lot of work to do before this theory is accepted. However, it would explain that quizzical look and deep stare our dogs give us as they tilt their head.

Because we encourage them to

You may not do this consciously but every time you react when your dog tilts their head, you are encouraging them to do it again. This is called positive reinforcement. So, if you ask your dog if they want a treat and give them one if they tilt their head (because they have melted your heart) they soon learn to repeat the behavior.

This may be why some dogs appear to tilt their heads more than others.

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Which Breeds Tilt Their Heads The Most?

Some breeds seem to tilt their heads more than others. An informal survey of dog owners found that breeds with longer and pronounced muzzles, like the Greyhounds, did it more than those with flat faces (such as Pugs). This may be because they are trying to get a clear view of their owner’s face. However, that is not the full story.

German Shepherds are thought to tilt their heads because their ears are quite high and they cannot hear sounds from behind them. The breeds with thick and luxuriant ear flaps, typically the Cocker Spaniel, need to lift the flaps away from the ear canal to hear the subtle changes in their owner’s voices.  

Is Head Tilting a Sign of Intelligence?

Some fascinating research has recently been carried out to try to answer the question – why do dogs tilt their heads – and the results may surprise you. The study findings suggested that some dogs are particularly gifted at recognizing human words. These so-called gifted word learners (GWLs) can recognize the names of over a hundred toys. Researchers also noticed that the gifted dogs tilted their heads more when their owners were talking to them. This led them to suggest that head tilting was associated with concentration on the human voice.

Training a Dog to Head Tilt

It is possible to train your dog to head tilt more often if you find it especially cute! All you have to do is provide positive reinforcement as you do with all behaviors that you want to encourage. You could even introduce a command for head tilting if you want to.

All you need is some tasty treats and plenty of patience. Most dogs get the hang of it in a few weeks.

Can Head Tilting be Caused by a Medical Problem?

Yes, a permanent head tilt is a sign of a problem. Head tilts should only last for a few seconds. The most likely cause of a problematic head tilt is an ear infection. These can be caused by bacteria or yeast and cause discomfort, pain, and itching. You need to see your vet about this. Some allergies cause excessive ear scratching which can lead to infections. Your dog may need a special diet that does not contain allergens. Dogs with long ear flaps can develop infections because the ears trap air and moisture making it an ideal environment for microbes to grow. By using a dog ear cleaning solution you can help to prevent infections.

It is also possible for dogs to get infections deeper inside the ear – in the middle ear. This also causes a longer-lasting head tilt. There are some neurological problems that can also cause head tilts including Vestibular Disease. These need to be assessed quickly by your vet.

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About the Author

Dr Sharon Parry is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on dogs, animal behavior, and research. Sharon holds a PhD from Leeds University, UK which she earned in 1998 and has been working as a science writer for the last 15 years. A resident of Wales, UK, Sharon loves taking care of her spaniel named Dexter and hiking around coastlines and mountains.

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