There Are Multiple Theories for Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads

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. Have you ever wondered why?

As BrainStuff host Cristen Conger explains in this video, no one really knows exactly why dogs so often tilt their heads. There are, however, several plausible possibilities that seem to make a whole lot of sense. In general, these educated guesses fall into three categories: sight, sound and psychology.

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While scientists may disagree on the reasoning behind the head tilt, few could argue the cuteness of a French bulldog puppy.

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, so there may be other reasons for head tilting. The second explanation for a dog's head tilt may have something to do with the way they fine-tune to the sounds they hear. A dog's sense of hearing is twice as sensitive as that of a person's, as the video explains, 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 are 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 you're 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 adorable that it results in extra attention, well, that's definitely a bonus. Enough so that some animal behaviorists claim it's learned communication. Steven R. Lindsay, author of "Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training," believes the 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. 

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Scientists haven't reached consensus about why dogs tilt their heads; there may be multiple reasons.
Ashley Coombs/Flickr