Whether it's a basket of puppies in a viral video or one's own dog anticipating a treat, most of us have seen a dog tilt its head in an adorably inquisitive way. Makes you wonder why they do it.
A study published in the journal Animal Connections in October 2021 says it could be a sign of increased concentration. The researchers had done a previous study where they put toys in one room and asked dog owners (in another room) to tell their pets to fetch a specific toy by name. Even after three months of training, most dogs could not do this. However, the ones that could were labeled Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs.
The GWL dogs tilted their heads to one side when they heard their owners ask for a specific toy 43 percent of the time, whereas the other dogs tilted their heads only 2 percent of the time. "It seems that there is a relationship between success in retrieving a named toy and frequent head tilts upon hearing its name," Shany Dror, researcher and co-author of the study, said in a press release.
The researchers said this was the first study to look at head-tilting behavior in dogs, but they point out theirs looked at it in a very specific situation. "Hence, it is important to refrain from thinking that only Gifted Word Learner dogs tilt their heads in other situations not tested in this study," added researcher Andrea Temesi in the same release.
So, there could be other reasons why dogs tilt their heads. What are they? First, let's take a closer look at sight, which oddly enough starts with the nose. (This will make, ahem, sense in a moment.) A dog's long snout can obstruct its vision from certain angles, so it may tilt its head to get a better look at something — especially if that something is a person's face. Research has shown that dogs use visual cues to read human expressions in an attempt to better understand whether we're happy, sad or ready to hand out treats.
Of course, not all dogs have long snouts. Another explanation may have something to do with the way dogs fine-tune to the sounds they hear. A dog's sense of hearing is twice as sensitive as that of a person's, though acuity can vary depending on breed and age.
When dogs detect noises at higher pitches, from farther away, they may tilt their heads to better handle the influx of sound waves. Specifically, dogs use the tip of their ears — the fuzzy, scratchable outer ears known as pinnae — like satellite dishes, moving them around to better hear the sounds humans are making.
Additionally, dogs have specialized muscles that help them process sounds in their middle ear. These muscles happen to be governed by a part of the brain stem known as nucleus ambiguus, which also governs facial expressions, gaze, vocalizations and head movements. That endearing head tilt? It could be nothing more than a reflex as a dog focuses on a sound.
And finally, if tilting their heads is so cute that it results in extra attention, well, that's definitely a bonus. Enough so that some animal behaviorists claim it's learned communication. Dog behavior consultant Steven R. Lindsay calls this the "social head tilt" — when a dog tilts its head in response to a human it's the dog's way of "talking." And when we respond with praise or other positive feedback — or snacks! — the head-tilting is more likely to happen again.