You already know the look: Your dog is staring at you, eyes bright with curiosity and ears perked up. And of course, the puppy’s head tilts slightly to one side in response to the sound of your voice.
This is just one of the many fascinating quirks that dogs possess. And quickly Search on Google will offer many theories about their adorable head tilting behavior. For example, some veterinarians suggest that dogs tilt their heads toward their owners to show that they are engaged and extend the interaction, similar to the way people nod during a conversation to show we’re listening.
But surprisingly, little research has explored the reasons behind this. A recent studyhowever, it can offer some clues—and suggests that head tilts may be a sign that your canine companion is trying to understand you better.
Study of head tilt in dogs
Researchers have found that many animals—fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and even humans— process sensory information asymmetrically, meaning they use either the left or right side of their brain. Other studies show that dogs also often show this asymmetry tail wagging on one side or sniffing with one nostril above the other.
But when it comes to head tilt in dogs, the scientific literature is far more scarce. “This is a very common behavior in dogs,” says Andrea Somese, an animal behavior researcher at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary. “There are a lot of anecdotes and stories and all that, but there was no scientific publication about it.”
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That is, until Sommese and his colleagues found that “gifted” dogs—meaning those who could remember the names of several different toys—often tilted their heads to the side before correctly retrieving a particular toy. The team published their results in the diary Knowledge of animals at the end of 2021
An unexpected discovery
Sommese says the finding is surprising; scientists stumbled upon it while conducting a small study of gifted “word learning” dogs. While most dogs struggle to learn the names of even two toys, these seven special pups could remember and retrieve at least 10 different toys by name after being taught them by researchers.
What’s more, the team saw that fetch-prone pups tilted their heads after being prompted with a command (“fetch rope!”) more often than their less skilled peers. So Somese and his colleagues decided to dig deeper.
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“We’ve all noticed that,” he adds. “So we started talking about it because it was becoming more consistent. And then we decided to analyze it.
Why do dogs tilt their heads?
In the 2021 study, which took place over several months, scientists compared the picking abilities of seven “gifted” dogs — all border collies — with those of 33 “typical” dogs. Sommese says they designed the experiment with the dogs in one room and the toys in another.
Nalani, one of the talented “word learning” dogs included in the study, sits atop a treasure trove of toys. (Credit: Sonja De Laat Spierings)
“So [the dogs] I don’t actually see the toys,” he continues. “And when the owner asks for a toy by name, [the dog] hears the word, the stimulus, and they’re like, “Okay, let me think about that. What is?’ And then they go and get it.
The study authors found that when prompted by a command from their owner, gifted dogs tilted their heads 43 percent of the time, compared to just 2 percent of typical dogs. Thus, tilting the head can be a sign of mental processing — meaning that little ones are likely paying attention or even matching the name of the toy with a visual memory of it in their head.
“[The head tilt] is a way of thinking about something,” adds Sommese. “To get what we call a ‘mental representation’ of the item or toy.”
Other reasons why dogs turn their heads
Monique Udell, an animal behaviorist who studies human-animal interactions at Oregon State University, notes that there may be other explanations for head-tilting behavior beyond concentration and recall.
“Maybe it helps them see better or hear better — and get a different perspective,” Udell says. “Many species will move their heads or bodies to respond to important stimuli to get a better idea of what the thing is.”
Going forward, she hopes scientists will investigate whether different dog breeds tilt their heads in response to other factors in their environment as well.
“Maybe the howling of another dog or the sound of prey if it’s a hunting dog,” Udell says. “I’d be interested to know if head tilt is really specific to this kind of stimulus, or if we can find out if head tilt in different dogs corresponds to different stimuli that are important to them.”
Sommese says he would like to continue his research by looking at populations of non-gifted dogs to see if hearing familiar words elicits the same response. And while research into the relationship between canine cognition and head tilt is still in its infancy, for now, the next time your pup tilts his head, you can probably chalk it up to a delightful attempt to process what you’re saying
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