Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?
A new, simple study reveals how it may help them.
Posted October 30, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
For many decades I've wondered why dogs often tilt their heads from side to side when they're standing still and looking at something, sniffing a patch of grass or the bottom of a tree, or listening to different nearby or distant sounds. I've usually assumed they were paying more attention to gather more information to assess the direction from which a visual, olfactory or auditory stimulus is arriving because head-tilting results in the information coming in asymmetrically to one or another sense organ.
So, too, have many people, including researchers. I'm also a fan of studies that focus on carefully watching dogs do the things they do because a lot can be learned from simply observing our homed canine companions and those who are more of the free-ranging kind.
Because of these long-term interests in why dogs engage in head-tilting and also because no one had previously done systematic research of this common dog behavior, I was excited to read a recent study by Andrea Sommese and her colleagues titled "An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs" in the journal Animal Cognition.1,2 What caught my eye about this research was its simplicity—the researchers simply watched dogs during what are called object-label knowledge tests while the dogs listened to humans ask them to fetch a familiar toy. The study is available online, and details about methods, data, and results are easily accessible—an excellent, accessible summary can be seen here—but here are a few snippets to whet your appetite.
Forty dogs were used in this study. Each learned the name of two novel toys, and they were tested after one, two, and three months. The researchers wrote:
During the test, the owner asked the dog to fetch one of the toys (randomly determined) by pronouncing its name (e.g. 'bring rope!'). The dogs were standing or sitting in front of the owner while the toys were in an adjacent room. Upon hearing the owner's request, the dogs entered the room, chose a toy, and brought it back to the owner. Each of the monthly tests (3 in total) consisted of 12 trials per dog, using the same pair of toys throughout each test.
During each trial, the presence or absence of head-tilting was noted. It turns out that only a few dogs learn the names of objects, and those who rapidly learn object labels are called "gifted word learners" (GWL). The researchers found that GWL dogs tilted their heads significantly more than typical non-GWL dogs. They noted:
Thus, in the context of object verbal labels, the familiarity of the stimulus alone was not enough to elicit head-tilts. Therefore, we suggest that the difference in the dogs' behavior might be related to hearing meaningful words (for the GWL dogs) and could be a sign of increased attention.
The researchers also reported that all of the dogs who performed frequent head-tilts were Border Collies. However, 18 dogs who did not perform head-tilts also were Corder Collies. Because of this and because of the results of other studies, they correctly call for further research on other breeds to assess the generalizability of their results. The dogs also had a favored side.
Where to Go From Here?
I received a few emails about this research. Some people asked what I thought of it, and others noted that only Border Collies displayed head-tilting, ostensibly as a marker of heightened attention. I agree that we need more research, but this study opens the door for future work, and I called attention to the phrase "exploratory analysis" in the title of the research paper.
All in all, I like this preliminary study because it's the first of its kind and it sheds some light on why dogs might engage in head-tilting. I fully realize that some, if not many humans, find it to be "cute," but it seems more plausible that it works as one way to focus more attention on what's happening to the dog at a given moment.
I also like this study because it stresses the importance of observing dogs do what they do. After all, there's a lot to learn by simply watching them as carefully as they watch us.
The wild relatives of dogs—wolves, coyotes, jackals, and foxes, for example—also perform head-tilting, and it's reasonable to assume that they also do it to gain more information about what's around them to increase their understanding of what's happening. There's no compelling reason to think they do it because other members of their species think it's cute.
It's also possible that when a dog sees another individual tilting their head, they realize that there's something of interest out there. I would like to see more research on this aspect of head-tilting to determine if there's a contagious aspect to this behavior that results in individuals intentionally or unintentionally sharing some information. For example, sometimes animals want others to know that there might be danger looming, and sometimes they don't want to share information about where food is located.
Formal science and citizen science can easily add to the data pool on this common yet loosely understood behavior. I look forward to further studies on head-tilting to learn more about why dogs do it and how widely distributed it is among different breeds. It wouldn't be surprising to learn that members of other breeds do it, that there's more than one reason for head-tilting, and that whether or not it occurs depends on the context in which dogs find themselves. It's also important to look at what else a dog is doing when they tilt their head.
It's exciting that there is still so much to learn about this fascinating and diverse species, as solid answers are still lacking for some of their common behavior patterns. It's highly educational and perfectly okay to say, "We don't really know why dogs do this or that, so let's find out."
LinkedIn and Facebook image: Aleksei Kochev/Shutterstock
1) The abstract for this study reads: Little is known about head-tilts in dogs. Based on previous investigations on the head turning and the lateralised brain pattern of human speech processing in dogs, we hypothesised that head-tilts may be related to increased attention and could be explained by lateralised mental functions. We observed 40 dogs during object-label knowledge tests and analysed head-tilts occurring while listening to humans requesting verbally to fetch a familiar toy. Our results indicate that only dogs that had learned the name of the objects tilted their heads frequently. Besides, the side of the tilt was stable across several months and tests. Thus, we suggest a relationship between head-tilting and processing relevant, meaningful stimuli.
2) There's no shortage of opinions about why dogs tilt their heads.
Bekoff, Marc. Dogs Watch Us Carefully and Read Our Faces Very Well.
Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. Princeton University Press, October 2021.
Sommese, A., Miklósi, Á., Pogány, Á. et al. An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs.Anim Cogn (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01571-8