Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Quite possibly the cutest pose our canine friends can strike is the Head Tilt. When a dog cocks his fluffy head to one side, then the other, we swoon and think he must be listening to our every utterance.

You ask your dog if they want to go for a walk, if they want to play, or if they want a treat and they listen intently to your every syllable, responding with a slight turn of their squishy faces. But why do our dogs do this? Do they just know we think the head tilt is precious and they want us to gush over them? Or is it because their floppy ears muffle our voices and they have to move their heads to hear our affectionate declarations? We explain these and other possible reasons your dog does this endearing behavior.

Carson Downing

4 Reasons Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads

As with any behavior, head tilting is actually rich in function and can occur for a variety of reasons across many contexts.

1. Sound Localization

A dog’s hearing is generally more sensitive than ours, especially when it comes to hearing at higher frequencies. Dogs’ ears can also move to funnel in sound more efficiently, and the shape of the ear can even assist in capturing and amplifying sounds. In long-eared dog breeds and in dogs with a lot of hair, however, the ear canal can become a bit obstructed to sounds. So a dog will move their head (and thus their ears) back and forth to help channel the sound and identify its source better.

2. Vision Assistance

Dogs have great vision overall but their visual acuity, or ability to see things with clarity, is not quite as strong as it is in humans—especially when they’re looking at things far away or really close up. In fact, their depth perception is best when they look at things straight in front of them, at eye level, and they are much better at noticing things that are moving versus standing still. Head tilting might actually aid a dog in seeing you, depending on where you are standing in regards to your dog’s face.

3. Positive Reinforcement

If your dog tilts her head when you say the word “treat” and you find that irresistible and give her a favorite treat, she’s more likely to do that head tilt again the next time the word “treat” is said. That’s positive reinforcement at work. Of course, if you squeal and make all sorts of high-pitched noises that your dog associates with happiness, affection, or attention, those lovey noises can also be reinforcing the head tilt response.

4. Medical Concern

Most of the time your dog does this head titling behavior it isn’t cause for concern. However, if your dog seems to do it continuously or more vigorously than ever, you probably need to check in with your veterinarian. Also of concern: If he’s doing it alongside other behaviors such as whining, barking, scratching his head, rubbing his head against objects, or pushing his head against a hard surface. Also, if you notice changes in his eating, sleeping, or activity levels you need to make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. Ailments like ear infections or allergies, neurological disorders, skin conditions, or hearing difficulties can cause a dog to shake or tilt their head more than usual. As well, parasitic infections like mites or fleas may cause your dog to feel uneasy or itchy resulting in an increase in head movements and erratic-looking behaviors.

Sounds That Make Your Dog Tilt Their Head

If you live with a bright pupper you probably have identified cues or noises that make your dog cock their adorable little head.

Noises in the Home

Sounds within your home that have been paired with something good are more likely to make your dog take notice than other noises. For instance, the squeak of a cupboard door opening or the sound of the fridge slamming shut might cause your dog to listen closely if those noises are typically followed with them getting a nummy treat or sharing a snack with you. Sounds like your car keys jingling, a snack wrapper crinkle, or even the TV turning on can all become learned signals to your dog, and they want to adjust their ears with a head tilt to take extra notice.

Favorite Words

Your dog can learn all sorts of words and phrases, and when combined with positive reinforcement those bits of language can become cues and conditioned reinforcers. Words like “Wanna go for a walk?” or ” Dinner time!” or maybe “Cookie!” are learned quickly and create happy feelings in your dogs. So when they hear those words, even uttered quietly, they might cock their head in joyful anticipation or to make sure what you are saying is actually going to happen. Within a conversation, or when you say more than one word, a dog will turn their head to pick up words they understand amongst others that might be more confusing.

That’s backed up by new research in Animal Cognition, which indicates that dogs who were taught specific toy names would tilt their heads upon hearing the name, suggesting “a relationship between head-tilting and processing relevant, meaningful stimuli.”

Research has shown that dogs don’t only listen to the words we say but also the tone we use, our body language when we say them, and our facial expressions. So if you say a word your dog knows well, like “sit” out of normal context or with a different body position or facial expression than you typically use, they may head tilt to double check they are hearing you correctly.

Other Animal Noises

Birds chirping, the neighbor’s dog barking in the distance, or the cat meowing from downstairs might all make your dog’s head tilt. Your dog will adjust the position of their head so they can better take in the sound and evaluate it for any meaning.

Like any doggie behavior, head tilting is functionally rich but also ranks high on the list of impossibly adorable canine quirks.