Dogs tilt their heads when listening for a simple reason: something you just said must have grabbed your dog's attention. Of course, this is just a short version of the answer. In order to better understand why dogs tilt their heads when listening, it's helpful to gain a closer insight into dog psychology and perhaps even learning some basics in physiology.
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.
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!
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, your dog may receive confirmation that it's truly the word that he thought it was and the head tilt may therefore be replaced by some excited body language such as a nose nudge or perhaps a bark. Can you hear your dog saying: "Hey, you said cookie, so now can you go get me one?"
An Unfamiliar 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?" But why do dogs tilt their head in the first place? Dogs ultimately tilt their head for a practical reason: by tilting their head, one ear gets in the direction of the sound.
A Matter of Vision?
Why do dogs cock their heads when we are talking? Here's an interesting theory. 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
Dogs are known for hearing better than humans and having quite some powerful ears. It has been estimated that dogs are capable of hearing at frequencies up to 60,000 hertz (humans hear only up to 20,000 hertz) and are capable of detecting sounds at 20 feet what humans can detect at roughly 80 feet.
This explains why humans have relied on dogs as faithful guardians since ancient times and continue to rely on them. Dogs are blessed with the uncanny ability of alerting humans to potential dangers that humans can't detect.
Despite being blessed with a superior sense of hearing, there is belief that dogs may not excel much in determining the exact origin of sounds.
If your dog therefore hears an odd noise or odd sounding word coming from you, there are chances that he is tilting his head in order to better detect the source of the sound almost as if his ears were antennas attempting to tune in and receive a better sound. It's as if your dog is saying: " Did that really originate from you?"
After all, this theory makes sense since 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.
Perhaps another theory may be worthy of considering, at least in dogs with floppy ears. By tilting their head, gravity may pull away one of the earflaps allowing more sound to flow in. However, again, this brings to another question: why do dogs with erect ears cock their head?
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
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.
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.