Why do Dogs Tilt Their Head?

Trainer Sam Ivy

Written by master trainer Sam Ivy

One of our favorite things that dogs do is the head tilt.

It’s adorable, communicative, and has a je ne sais quoi about it that most of us find irresistible.

But why do they do it?

Turns out, there’s a couple reasons.

1. It Has to Do With Accessing Meaningful Memories

Not all dogs can learn the names of objects, including familiar toys. Those that can are called “gifted word learners.”

Researchers who published a recent article in Animal Cognition noted that when working with these dogs, they were more likely to tilt their heads when hearing the name of a toy they recognized.

On top of that, they found that “gifted” dogs were more likely to tilt their heads when listening to their human friends than typical dogs.

The researchers suggested this could also mean that the head tilt is a sign of increased attention or what happens when the dog makes a connection between what you’re saying now and a previous memory.


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2. It Helps With Hearing

Dogs have exceptionally good hearing. Most people have noticed that their dog can hear better than they can.

It may come as a surprise that dogs actually have a disadvantage when it comes to hearing.

Humans have ears that can pick up sounds from every direction. We can easily hear things in front of us, behind us, or to either side.

The shape of a dogs ear prevents them from hearing in all directions. That’s because their ears can actually get in the way. To get around this, dogs will move their ears and heads around to be able to hear sound coming from a particular direction better.

When a dog tilts her head, this helps her take in sound from a new direction.

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3. It Helps Them See You Better

Try this experiment: make a fist and touch it to your nose. Now, try to see things.

While you can probably still see pretty well, you’ll probably also notice that much of your vision is blocked. This is how dogs go through their lives all the time.

It’s not a significant disadvantage, but it does mean that they have to move their heads around more than we do to take in more of their surroundings, and that includes being able to see you better when you’re talking to him.

4. We Encourage It

Dogs are notoriously social creatures. They are not only drawn to other dogs and people, but they need to feel included. They get excited when they feel welcomed and approved of by other members in their pack.

Now, think about what happens when a dog tilts his head at us: we love it.

We get excited. We oo and aw at them. A lot of times, we’ll pet them and show them even more affection than usual.

Dogs feed into that energy. It makes them feel fully engaged with us and like they’re doing something that will get them love and attention.

That takes what might have started as an occasional behavior into something that gets reinforced. They’re emotionally rewarded and are more likely to do it again.

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