Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads? It's one of those cute things dogs do, you say some word that grabs your dog's attention and your dog cocks his head adoringly as if he's saying: ''What did you just say?" If you have been wondering why dogs tilt their heads, you have likely seen your dog do it or you may have watched one of those cute videos featuring a group of pugs repeatedly tilting their heads as if in synchrony. So what makes dogs move their heads in the first place? Too bad that dogs cannot speak to reveal to us what is really going on. Until then, we can only make assumptions, so here are some of them.

Cute head tilt in dog
Did you say walk?

A Familiar Word

When do dogs tilt their heads? Many dog owners report it happens when their dog recognizes a familiar word. You'll therefore see a head tilt when you say the word "cookie" or "walk." Through a process known as "discrimination" dogs can distinguish certain words from others. So if you are saying a sentence such as "It's nice and sunny outside, so I don't think I will need to bring an umbrella during our walk, " your dog is likely to hear "blah, blah blah, blah, blah, blah" followed by the word "walk." Bingo! Among that mumbo jumbo of unfamiliar words which is sort of like listening to white noise from Rover's perspective, there's finally a word he's familiar with and that's worthy of his full attention!

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Interestingly, when dog owners try to say the specific head-tilting words deliberately, some dogs will not repeat the head tilting behavior. Why is that? This could be because the dog does the head tilt mostly when he's trying to figure out a word, sort of like saying "Did I hear it right?" If you say it again, the dog may receive confirmation that it's truly the word that he thought it was and the head tilt may therefore be replaced by a bark or nose nudge. Can you hear your dog saying: "Hey, you said cookie, so now can you go get me one?"

An Unfamiliar Sound

What was that sound?
What was that sound?

At the other side of the spectrum, you have dogs who will tilt their heads when they hear a sound that they aren't much familiar with. In this case the dog is still discriminating, only that instead of discriminating words that have a meaning to him from words that have no meaning, the dog is discriminating a sound that stands out from other types of sounds. It's sort of like when we hear something and think or say: "Hey, what was that?"

A Matter of Vision?

Why do dogs cock their heads when we are talking? Author, scientist and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology, Stanley Coren suggests that a dog tilts his head because the muzzle blocks a part of his vision. By tilting his head, he's better able to see the lower part of your face, which is the vital component of human emotional expressions. While this theory makes sense, there are some questions though that remain unanswered: why do pugs and other breeds of dogs with pushed-in faces still have a need to tilt their heads? Why don't dogs just tilt their head down instead of sideways if they want to see us better? Also, why would dogs also cock their head in reaction to noises that are strange, interesting, or high pitched?

A Matter of Hearing

Dog ears provide important sensory information

Yes, dogs have amazing hearing aids, but many dog owners report that the head tilt is simply the dog's way of trying to locate the source of an unclear noise, almost as if a dog's ears were antennas attempting to tune in and receive a better sound. After all, the head tilt behavior tends to fade as the sound or word is made clearer with time. This would explain why many dog owners have a hard time getting their dog to do several head tilts in a row. One way to do it, is to keep saying the word in a way that still remains unclear, but be warned that most dogs get tired of trying to understand after a while.

The Magic of Novelty 

Puppies are more likely to frequently tilt their heads compared to older dogs, and this is likely because to puppies, all sounds are new, explain veterinarian Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori in the book "Why Do Dogs Drink Out of the Toilet." On the other paw, older, more experienced dogs are more likely to just flip an ear rather than performing a full head tilt in reaction to certain noises. We can't blame them; as seasoned listeners, they have likely heard that noise before.

The Power of Reinforcement

Head tilts are endearing
Head tilts are endearing

There are some dogs though who will repeatedly head tilt upon hearing a particular word, why is that? There are chances that dogs like the attention they get when they do that. If you laugh, praise or pet your dog when he tilts his head, your dog may be likely to repeat the head-tilting behavior because it was positively reinforced. This is scientifically proven. Behaviors that are reinforced tend to be repeated; behaviours which are not reinforced tend to die out or be extinguished, says B. F Skinner, the father of Operant Conditioning.

Socially Skilled Dogs

Steven Lindsay, in his book "Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Procedures and Protocols" claims that the head tilt in dogs is a behavior of social display and isn't likely to be exhibited by dogs who are socially apprehensive or reactive. The reasoning behind this is that such dogs are less tuned into people and therefore are less likely to maintain eye contact and engage in other behaviors that require social attention skills.

The Master's Voice, by Frances Barraud
The Master's Voice, by Frances Barraud

Did you know? The famous logo "His Master's' Voice" was created by artist Francis Barraud. It depicts a terrier named Nipper, who originally belonged to Barraud's brother Mark. After Mark Barraud died, Nipper, was left to Francis, along with a cylinder phonograph and a series of recordings of Mark's voice. Francis noted how Nipper was often inquisitively cocking his head upon hearing the recorded voice of his late master emanating from the horn. Intrigued, he decided to make a painting of the scene. His painting became popular and today it remains one of the world's most loved and recognized trademarks.