Why do dogs tilt their heads?
Dogs tilting their heads is paw-haps the cutest behaviour known to man. (Or should that be hound?) But while a pooch with its head cocked and ears pricked might be the most adorable pose they can pull, is it just to melt our hearts or does it serve a purpose? If you’ve ever wondered what makes a dog tilt their head, there are actually a few reasons why your pooch might be popping the pose.
Why do dogs tilt their heads?
Like a lot of things in the world of canine behaviour, we aren’t exactly sure. We can make some educated guesses as to why dogs tilt their heads, but until someone manages to teach a dog to talk us through why they do it, we will never know the exact reason why. But considering we can observe their behaviour and have a solid understanding of doggy sociology, it’s safe to say the theories we have are pretty strong.
The main theories on why dogs tilt their heads are:
- To listen to something
- To see past their snout
- Because they know it’s cute
- To read your expression
- As a social cue
But why do these all make your furry friend cock their head to the side?
What makes dogs tilt their heads?
It helps to locate sound
The most common theory is that dogs tilt their heads to locate sounds better. Your pooch has paw-some hearing and is able to hear sounds 4 times further away than us as well as the ability to hear frequencies that are im-paws-ible for humans to hear. However, they supposedly aren’t as good as humans at pinpointing where the sound originates from. Tilting their head and pricking their ears forward helps them to hone an ear closer to the sound, a little bit like a satellite dish moving to catch a signal.
However, it’s been noted that when a dog is directly in front of you, they probably don’t need to tilt their head to hear you any better, suggesting there’s much more going on to trigger the tilt.
It helps them to see
Another theory about why dogs tilt their heads is that it helps them to see. This is because many breeds of dog have a pronounced snout, which must block out some of their field of vision. Our own noses are quite slim so we never notice them, but a dog’s schnozz must surely create a blind spot.
You could test this for yourself by balling your hand into a fist and holding it up against your nose to mimic having your own snout. You’ll notice that suddenly, a big portion of your field of vision is now just your own fist. It’s believed that dogs tilt their heads to compensate for this blindspot.
One study tried to investigate this theory and surveyed hundreds of dog owners, asking if their dog tilted their head when they were paying attention to their humans. It turns out 71% of dogs with bigger snouts would tilt their head, while only 52% of brachycephalic breeds (flat-faced) would tilt their heads.
That 19% difference would suggest that tilting their head would have a link to snouts and therefore vision. But, because all breeds display the behaviour regardless of snout size, it means it can’t be the only reason why dogs tilt their head.
They know you think it’s cute
Your own behaviour could be contributing to the cute pose. That’s because whenever your dog tilts their head, you probably start smothering them in praise and cuddles because they look so adorable. This paw-sitive response can reinforce the behaviour, and because your dog knows you seem to like it when they tilt their head, they’ll do it more often. Like many behaviours and positive reinforcement, it means you can also train your dog to tilt their head on command.
Reinforced with paw-sitivity
Equally, your dog might tilt their head when you ask them if they want to go walkies, or have a treat. Your dog then starts to associate tilting their head with all these positive things, and it reinforces the behaviour in a similar way to how praising your pooch will make them more likely to tilt their head.
It’s a social behaviour
It’s easy to accept this theory because dogs do tend to tilt their heads more when their human is talking to them and don’t seem to do it around other dogs. Head tilts seem to be a social cue between human and hound, which is why your dog might tilt their head when you talk to them. But is it a cue for you or the dog?
Why do dogs tilt their heads when you talk to them?
Most of the time your dog tilts their head, it’s probably because you’re interacting with them. Now, there are a few hypotheses about why dogs tilt their heads when you talk to them, and they’re linked to the theories that dogs cock their heads to see and hear. So just like the big bad wolf, your dog tilts their head because it’s all the better to see you with and all the better to hear you with.
Giving and showing their attention is on you
Firstly, it’s the sound thing again. Your pooch could be tilting their head could to hear you better, or it could be to pay more attention to the words you’re saying. Since dogs seem to tilt their heads when asked about things they love, like walks, it could be that it’s to pay more attention to these exciting words and make sure that you’re saying what they hope you are.
Because tilting their head also seems to have links to their sight, it’s also paws-ible that your dog tilts their head to see your face better. Our hounds are su-paw little learners and empathisers and pay a lot of attention to human expressions as well as our tone of voice. But because their nose is in the way, they may need to tilt their head so that they can see your face fully and read your expression.
Try putting your fist against your nose again and look at someone’s face. You’ll find that you can’t see their mouth if you look directly at them, and as we’ve all discovered with wearing masks, it can be tricky to tell someone’s expression and feelings when you can’t see their whole face. That means your dog might be tilting their head to see your face better so they can read your expression.
However, the jury is out on this one and some people believe it’s actually more of a social cue from your pooch designed to show you that they are actively listening. So when your dog tips their head to the side, it could be their way of saying “I’m listening!” the same way you might nod or hum during a conversation to assure the other person that you’re engaged and paying attention. (Which makes it even cuter, I think!)
Getting your attention
But, there might be some manipulation going on here. Because we react so paw-sitively to head tilting, it’s paws-ible that dogs have learned to use it against us just like they have with their puppy eyes.
Yep, your pooch turns on the puppy eyes on purpose to try and win you over. Studies have found dog’s specifically use puppy eyes on humans who are looking at them and seem willing to communicate, meaning those adorable expressions are very much intentional. Another study found dogs evolved to develop this ability so that they could better appeal to humans and make it more likely we looked after them.
With all that in mind, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think that the same can be said for head tilting, and I imagine some pups probably do adopt the cute pose to butter us up. And given how the pose almost always gets us cooing over their adorable face, it’s clearly working!
Do dogs tilt their heads when they’re confused?
Funnily enough, this is where the head tilt theories get a little more confusing. Since your dog seems to tilt their head to get a better look or listen to something, it’s plausible that they do it when something confuses them and they’re trying to figure it out. If they hear something new or interesting and don’t know what it is, they could cock their head to listen more closely or get a better look at whatever was causing the noise. However, this behaviour is probably more to do with the fact they’re concentrating rather than being a sign that they’re confused.
Is a head tilt always cute?
Sadly, not every head tilt is cute. Persistent head tilting can be a symptom of underlying illness. If your dog develops a head tilt and seems to have difficulty moving or balancing, take them to a vet promptly.
We still don’t know the exact reason why dogs tilt their heads, but most of the theories point towards it being a way of your dog communicating with you and understanding you better. Whatever the reason, I think we can all agree it is one of the most adorable things a dog can do, whether they know that or not.