Why Does My Dog Tilt Their Head?

You know the pose. It is perhaps one of the cutest things a dog can do. Not only does it make you smile, but it is very heartwarming and definitely Instagram-worthy. Most dog owners find this behavior adorable, but very few can explain why dogs do it. Do they know how adorable they look? Well, I suppose not, but the encouraging smiles and pats encourage them to keep doing this heartwarming pose. Jill Goldman, Ph.D., a certified applied human behaviorist, determines that there are several reasons that dogs tilt their heads.

Here are some reasons why your dog may be tilting its head:

It is an indication of concentration

As your dog looks at you attentively while tilting its head, it shows that they are paying attention and absorbing whatever utterances you make because its external ear canal captures the sound and transmits it to the brain. The same part of the brain controls the middle ear muscles and controls head movements and facial expressions. For this reason, your dog tilts its head to one side as it attempts to get every word. Researchers tend to equate how humans nod in a conversation as an indication of listening to dogs tilting their heads to show that they are engaged, understanding what you are telling them, and confirming that they are indeed listening.

Optimize sound detection

Interestingly, dogs possess a strong ability to detect sounds and frequencies that escape humans. Humans’ only advantage over dogs is the ability to see sounds from all the directions of their origin since their sound discernment by humans is not affected by where it comes from. The dogs’ ear flaps can partially or entirely form a cover over the ear canal that acts as a barrier to sound transmission. Dogs must then change their position for optimal sound detection. 

Assess the location and distance of sound

A dog lying on a couch

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It is insightful to realize that the duration between when the sound reaches the right versus the left ear helps a dog tell the sound’s distance. As it assesses the space and location of the sound, a dog tilts the head and adjusts its ear flaps. 

For effective communication

Moreover, your dog can understand not only what you say but also how you say it. A dog can effectively interpret your facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and eye movement. To fully understand you, they must see your face, which is possible if they tilt their head for a better perspective. 

The result of positive reinforcement

A dog standing on a wood deck

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Isn’t it interesting to learn that dogs tilt their heads as a result of human conditioning? As dogs tilt their heads, humans are conditioned to respond by patting them, smiling at them, and using a kind tone to speak to them. Your positive response to the head tilt encourages repetition. The more you gush over the head tilt, the more you enjoy it, thus enhancing positive reinforcement.  

Enhance vision

Though it is still subject to further research, vision might be another cause of head tilts. Dog’s muzzle might obstruct the proper view, and to enable it to achieve a better look, it could tilt its head. Dogs with more pronounced muzzles tend to exhibit head tilting behavior more often when with their owners than those whose faces are flatter. It means the shape of the dog’s head and the size of the muzzle both have an effect on head tilting. 

Exhibit expectation

Dogs may also tilt their heads to show that they are expecting something. Commonly used commands such as ‘no’ or ‘walk’ can trigger a head tilt. Often your dog will tilt their head to see if they did indeed hear the word and may even be expecting to hear what follows it. You may also notice your dog responding to these trigger words on TV by tilting their head. 

It shows empathy

A dog sitting on the floor

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Dogs are adept at reading human emotions based on facial expressions. Studies show that canines can intuitively understand whether their owners are pleased, sad, happy, or angry. The basic assumption then becomes that if they can understand our emotional state, the head tilting may perhaps be a way of showing empathy. Dogs do seem to know when things aren’t quite right in our world and even try to cheer us up with snuggles and kisses and the ever-delightful head tilt.

An indication of a medical problem

Have you witnessed any persistent head tilt that is not directly associated with communication? It is worrisome to have your dog exhibiting consistent head tilt that is not associated with any form of communication. It could be an indication of an external ear canal infection. This condition is caused by bacteria or yeast and may result in itching and pain. Additionally, if your dog holds its head to the side, it may indicate a neurological infection like a vestibular disease. If you witness any head tilting that is not associated with auditory stimulation, it is time you act swiftly and call a veterinarian.

Irrespective of why dogs tilt their heads, it provides a way for dogs and humans to bond. Dr. Goldman states that head tilting in dogs may be adaptive as both humans and dogs seem to have a tendency towards the behavior. If the behavior is accompanied by shaking of the head, loss of balance, or vomiting, seek the help of a local veterinarian immediately. These conditions are synonymous with ear problems and vertigo.  

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