Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Australian Shepherd puppy tilts its head

Any dog owner knows pups do a lot of adorable things, from the way they bring us little gifts to the way they explode in joy when they know it's feeding time. One of their cutest — and least comprehensible — quirks is the way they tilt their heads when you talk to them. If you've ever wondered what this endearing behaviour means, dig into this guide for some theories on why dogs tilt their heads like this.

Why Do Dogs Turn Their Heads?

While there's no solid consensus on this question, scientists, researchers and animal behaviourists have a number of competing explanations. If your dog likes to tilt their head, it could be for one of the following reasons. 

Attempting to Locate a Noise

Dogs have an incredible range of hearing. You've probably heard of dog whistles, which operate at a frequency that only they can hear. In fact, dogs can hear sounds at frequencies up to three times higher than humans can.

When your dog is tilting their head, it might be an indication that they're trying to figure out the source of a sound you can't actually hear. As they adjust the position of their ears, they may become more able to pinpoint what they're listening to and where it is. If your dog is completely frozen in place with their head tilted, they might be trying to remain as quiet as possible to focus on that sound.

Changing Their Field of Vision

Sight is another sense dogs may be attempting to engage when tilting their heads. Dogs have much longer muzzles than many animals, so it's possible that tilting their heads makes it easier to examine unfamiliar objects.

One researcher attempted to investigate this thesis. His study found that dogs with particularly long muzzles, such as greyhounds, tilted their heads more often than dogs with less prominent muzzles such as pugs.

That said, a majority of the short-nosed breeds also regularly tilted their heads, so the muzzle explanation doesn't entirely explain the phenomenon. 

Expressing Curiosity 

Humans love to talk to their dogs, and dogs love to listen. Some animal behaviourists believe that head tilting represents curiosity and interest on the part of your dog. They might be listening for vocal inflections that indicate approval or keywords that tell them your intentions.

That doesn't mean dogs understand human language, but if you've ever spelled out "W-A-L-K" instead of saying "walk" in front of your dog, you know how excitable dogs can get when they hear what they hope to hear. Similarly, your pup is very good at knowing the difference between a happy "good dog!" or a disappointed "bad dog!"  

Trying to Please You

This one is closely related to expressing interest. A big part of the reason dogs love to listen to their owners is because they love to please their owners. Figuring out what kinds of actions elicit pleased reactions on your part is one of your dog's favourite things to do.

If you always react well to those adorable head tilts by expressing affection or providing treats, your dog has likely learned that their action has positive results. When a dog realizes a behaviour is making you happy, you can expect them to repeat that behaviour as long as it continues to work.

Potential Health Issues

In most cases, there's absolutely no reason to worry if your dog is tilting their head a lot. However, if it seems to be happening very often with no related stimuli, it might be worth checking with your vet for a deeper investigation of what's going on. Your dog may be suffering from a health issue.

For example, a dog that's experiencing pain from an ear infection may often tilt their head in an attempt to relieve pressure and hence decrease discomfort. There's also a more serious condition called vestibular syndrome. The condition resembles vertigo and can cause a dog to lose their normally sure sense of balance.

A dog suffering from vestibular syndrome may consistently tilt their head. In this situation, the head tilt usually looks a bit different than the casually adorable expression you're used to. Instead, your dog is likely to lean way over to one side, much like a boat that's ready to capsize. One ear might be on or very close to the floor. 

Vestibular syndrome can also cause your dog to become nauseous and disoriented, which can lead to bigger problems down the line. Take your dog to the vet promptly if you think this condition might be the cause of your dog's behaviour.

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