Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads? Study Investigates Adorable Behavior

It's seemingly more complicated than simply trying to hear better. Image credit: Alzbeta / Shutterstock.com

Nothing disarms a dog lover quite like the ear flops of a curious head twisting side to side, but why do dogs tilt their heads? Researchers set about to find out in a new paper succinctly named “An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs,” in which they hypothesized that the adorable tilts might be linked to increased attention from the pups in question, as lateralized brain functions helped them to process information.

Published in the journal Animal Cognition, the study enlisted the help of 40 dogs who were taking part in another study by Fugazza et al that saw them retrieve toys with learned names as directed by a human. As they observed the challenges playing out, the researchers paid particular attention to the dogs’ head tilting. They noted whether or not the dogs tilted their heads, and which direction they tilted it in. Must’ve been a hard day at the office. 

Seven of the dogs included in the research were classed as gifted word learners (GWLs) who had proven themselves to be highly adept at learning the names of objects. The remaining 33 were family dogs who had been put through three months of training so that they were sufficiently familiar with the toys’ names.

The study’s results showed that the GWL dogs tilted their heads significantly more than the family dogs, and that the direction of the tilt bore no relevance to the position of the owner or the source of the sound. Since all the dogs were trained to be equally familiar with the toys prior to the study, the researchers say that toy popularity was unlikely to be the tilt trigger.

Instead, they suggest that tilting may be in response to meaningful words, which could explain why the GWL dogs’ tilts were set off more often during the observational study. In that sense, tilting may be indicative of increased attention on the part of the dog and may infer a relationship between head tilt direction and the dog’s neural processing of a human voice.

why do dogs tilt their heads
The GWL dogs were all border collies, but head tilting is seen in many dog breeds. Image credit: Amy Rene / Shutterstock.com

“[I]n the context of object verbal labels, the familiarity of the stimulus alone was not enough to elicit head-tilts,” wrote the study authors. “Therefore, we suggest that the difference in the dogs’ behaviour might be related to hearing meaningful words (for the GWL dogs) and could be a sign of increased attention. Possibly, head-tilts could also be related to making a cross-modal match in the dogs’ memory (e.g. name to a visual image) upon hearing the toy’s name.

“There is evidence for lateralisation in processing human vocalisations in the dog brain but the small number of GWL dogs in this study hinders investigating a population-level side bias. Future studies with a larger sample size may combine behavioural and neural approaches to reveal the relationship between the direction of head-tilting and neural processing of human vocalisations.”

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