When he does it it makes you smile, doesn’t it? However, he is not trying to appeal to your soft-heartedness with this gesture. We can tell you why your dog tilts his head, according to the science. 

Some dogs tilt their heads when someone talks to them or when they hear particular sounds. Not all of them do, but it’s a very common movement. Also, in general, each dog tends to tilt his head always on the same side. Perhaps it is one of those peculiarities of doggy behaviour that we find so appealing and respond to. Evidence of that idea is the large number of videos on social media that show dogs with this movement of their heads as the subject matter. Scientists have studied this behaviour to find out why they do it.

For some it helps them see better

Except in the case of flat-faced breeds such as, for example, the pug, bulldog or boxer, a dog’s muzzle comes into his field of vision. Of course, their eyes are adjusted to that in the same way as ours are with our noses, but, in general, the dog’s nose blocks out the lower part of the person he is looking at. Tilting his head to one side helps him to look from a different angle, without a nose in the middle, to see what’s in front of him, whether it’s you, the television or that plate of food that he likes a lot and which is still on the work surface. That’s the conclusion that Stanley Coren, professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, an expert on canine behaviour, has published in the journal Psychology Today.

Where does that sound come from?

In other cases, it is thought that the gesture of tilting the head could be more connected with hearing than with sight. If you think about it, this is something that we humans also do from time to time. We stretch the neck out to one side, placing the ear slightly higher and, in many cases, even placing the palm of the hand close to it to improve the reception of sound. It’s an action that we do unconsciously in order to hear better and, in the case of dogs, it also helps to locate the source of the sound. We have to remember that the dog’s sense of hearing is much finer than ours because they are able to capture a much larger range of frequencies than we can. The expert Pete Scheifele, executive director of Fetchlab, a bioacoustics and animal audition laboratory at the University of Cincinnati (USA), concludes that if tilting the head does not help the dog to hear better, at least it surely helps him to know exactly where the sound is coming from and how far away it is.


Because one ear hears better than the other…

An idea that seems fairly logical is that dogs, like humans and other animals, have an asymmetry both in their way of moving and in their perception of the environment through their senses. Who hasn’t noticed that they have one foot a few millimetres larger than the other, or one leg a bit longer? Or that they can see a little better with the right eye than with the left? Therefore, it could happen, simply, that there are dogs that hear better with one ear than with the other, and they tilt their heads to improve capturing the sound with the better one.

…and the brain also functions asymmetrically

Starting from the idea that this asymmetry (or lateralisation) is also found in how the brain functions, scientists at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest carried out a study showing how dogs that are capable of learning the names of their toys incline their heads when they hear their owners ask them in words to bring one. According to the research, published in the journal Animal Cognition, this inclination of the head is directly connected with the way that dogs have of processing human speech in their brains, in other words, there is an association between this behaviour and the processing of stimuli that are important and significant for them.

Are dogs that tilt their heads more intelligent?

Since during this research only dogs that had learned the names of the objects (and, therefore, found it successfully) tilted their heads frequently, it could be thought that those that use this gesture are more intelligent that the rest. However, the idea is yet to be demonstrated because the experiment was done in a very restricted and specific situation: asking the dog to bring a toy. There was no study of other cases where dogs tilt their heads such as, for example, when they see the television or their human talks to them of other things.


To concentrate on a sound that they recognise

In any case, it is clear that dogs understand certain words such as ‘walk’, ‘food’ or ‘treat’ and it is likely that you have seen how yours tilts his head when you use these words. According to Wailani Sung, a vet at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA) and an expert on animal behaviour, a dog will tilt his head in answer to certain words that have a meaning for him. Also when he hears a word that is like one he already knows, but doesn’t sound exactly the same and, therefore, he is disconcerted. It is as though he were thinking: did you say ‘treat’ or ‘tract’ — with a meaning unknown —? In short, he wants to understand what you are saying better.

This expert believes that in other cases your four-footed friend, particularly if a puppy, can tilt his head simply because he is curious. Perhaps he heard something that seemed unusual.

Look at yourself in the mirror: He’s imitating you!

Finally, it’s possible that you may not have realised, but many people also tend to incline their heads when they are listening attentively, wishing to hear better, or when they perceive a noise, sound or word that they do not totally understand. Observe your gestures and, if this is your case, you will be surprised to know that perhaps your dog tilts his head because his is copying you.

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