Advertisement

What does a head tilt mean in dogs?

tricolour mixed breed dog tilting head
© Mary Swift - Shutterstock

We all know and love the adorable head tilt that dogs do. But have you ever wondered why they do this? The answer might not be what you expect...

By Justine Seraphin

Published on the 21/11/2021, 17:00

You may have noticed that sometimes, when you talk to your dog, they’ll tilt their head sideways. While this is undeniably an adorable behaviour, you may have wondered why it actually occurs.

Don’t worry, a quick head tilt when you’re talking to your dog is completely normal behaviour. A longer, more pronounced head tilt, accompanied by other symptoms, could be a sign of a medical problem though. Here’s everything you need to know about why dogs tilt their heads. 

Why do dogs tilt their heads when you talk to them?

There are several reasons why your dog may be tilting their head when you talk to them. 

1. They’re trying to hear you better

While dogs have much more sensitive hearing when it comes to range and frequencies, they’re actually not so great at locating where the sound is coming from. Indeed, unlike humans, they have large ear flaps that can obstruct the ear canal and act as a barrier for sound transmission. By cocking their heads to the side, floppy-eared breeds such as Cocker Spaniels may flip their ears, thus creating a clearer path for sound. Other breeds like German Shepherds may tilt their heads slightly backwards and to the side so sound can make it’s way more easily into their ear canal. Plus, dogs can tell which ear heard the sound first (and so which one is closest to the sound) - so head tilting helps them in that way too.

2. They’re trying to see you better

There is some indication that head tilting may help dogs to see us better. Indeed, dogs with long snouts are more likely to tilt their heads than dogs with short snouts, such as Pugs, for example. If you talk to your dog, they’ll look at you for a visual cue - and if they have a long nose that gets in the way of their vision, they’ll need to readjust so they can see you better. 

3. They’re involuntarily responding to sound

Sound is funneled from the dog’s external ear canal into the middle ear, which is controlled by the same part of the brain that controls facial expressions and head movements. So, it could be that certain sounds trigger an involuntary response in the form of head tilting, for some dogs, anyway.

4. They’ve been taught to do it

Chances are, whenever your dog tilts their head you go “Aww!”, and you give them a friendly pat on the head. Well, that’s positive reinforcement! And by inadvertently rewarding that behaviour, you’re making your dog more likely to repeat it again in the future. By tilting their head, they know they’re going to get some positive attention from you. Could it be something that all dogs have universally learned to do over thousands of years to charm humans? Possibly, but more research is needed!

5. They’re trying to communicate with you

This is the most common and likely reason why dogs tilt their heads when you talk to them. As we know, dogs have developed many forms of communication just for humans (such as moving their eyebrows, for example). Well, head tilting is similar. They’ll do it to indicate that they heard you, are listening to you, and are trying to understand you. A head tilt in dog language is much like a silent nod for humans who are having a conversation. 

6. They’re processing what you’ve just said

A recent study published in the Animal Cognition journal found that breeds who are more “intelligent” and can understand more words, tilt their heads more than other dogs. For example, “gifted learners” such as Border Collies, when asked to go fetch specific toys, tilted their heads 43% of the time. Other breeds, when asked to perform the same task, would only tilt their heads 2% of the time. Much more research needs to be done on this subject, but the results of the study indicate that head tilting is just a quirky habit that occurs when 
a dog understood what you just said. It could also mean that your dog is matching a visual image in their head to the word they just heard. 

When is a dog head tilt a sign of an ear infection?

In some cases a head tilt could be a sign that your dog is suffering from an ear infection or a vestibular disease. The first sign could be that your dog head tilts randomly when there is no auditory stimulus that they could be responding to. If you’ve noticed this happening, look out for the following symptoms:

  • Prolonged, persistent and consistent head tilt
  • Itching
  • Loss of balance
  • Falling

If you notice any of the above symptoms, consult a veterinarian right away.

If your dog only tilts his head for sounds though, you have nothing to worry about! Just whether you have enough space on your phone to hold all the photos you’ll be taking of them!

Frequently asked questions

Why does my dog tilt his head back when I pet him?

Why does my dog lean his head into me?

Why you should never pet a dog on the head?