Head Tilting: Why Does My Dog Do That?

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

We've all seen the adorable head tilt that dogs do when we talk to them. The way they cock their head to the side makes it seem almost as though they are trying to understand the meaning of the words we're speaking to them. It's cute and endearing, but is it even more than that? Prior speculation has suggested that dogs tilt their head to the side so that they can hear us more clearly, or perhaps as a social signal. My friend and colleague, author and professor of psychology Stanley Coren, came with an interesting hypothesis for this curious dog behavior, and put it to the test.

Coren's hypothesis was that the head tilt had nothing to do with a dog's hearing or social cues, but rather it was about vision. We know that dogs are incredibly adept at reading our visual cues and body language, and that they are constantly scanning our face for information. Could it be that a dog's muzzle gets in the way of this interpretation, and that they simply cock their head to the side to get a better view of our face?

He then proceeded to conduct a survey among several hundred dog owners and asked them what breed or breed mix they owned, the shape of their dog's face, and how often their dog tilted its head when spoken to. 71% of owners of dogs with longer noses (greyhounds, retrievers, etc) reported that their dog tilted its head often, while only 52% of brachycephalic heads (flatter noses like pugs, bulldogs, etc) reported frequent head tilting. While this is a significant difference in percentage, Coren believes that since even the brachycephalic dogs have a relatively high percentage of head tilting, even flatter muzzles may still obstruct vision to some extent.

Coren's research points to the possibility that a dog's muzzle might actually get in the way of reading our facial expressions, particularly the lower part of our face. He suggests that this might be one of several factors that causing the head tilt, and that hearing and social cues may play a role, too.

This is only the early stages of research on this topic, but it's fascinating to see just how much we're learning about our dogs and the ways they find to cope with living in our domestic world.

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  • Freja

    Fascinating! Although I will stick to my inerpretation that my dog is just trying to understand me... so much cuter thought! ^^

  • nikki

    So true, I have a standard poodle who constantly tilts her head when I am talking to her, almost dementedly if I have a scarf wrapped round me in the cold, perhaps it is she cant see the lower facial expressions.

  • http://facebook jon

    I always thought that the tilting head was a play or submission signal ? like a play bow with head tilt or front paw action. any thoughts in this regard ?

  • Jennifer

    I was playing with my dog last night with a toy under a blanket. I made it squeak and she tilted her head while looking at the blanket. She wasn't looking at my face at all. It was more like she was trying to hear the toy. She's a pit bull/Boston terrier mix.

  • Wendy Hanson

    What about budgies and other birds? Would Coren suggest it is the same for these? Budgies have rather flat faces.

  • danny

    Yes Jennifer, the hidden squeak often elicits a head tilt in my dog and more so when he was a pup. I reckon it's a combination of reasons, but to me at least it seems to happen when the dog is trying to focus and work out what's going on. Even as I look into space and try to think about this myself I notice I also tilt my head. The more I think about it the more I realise how much head tilting is a human trait and how it can mean so many things depending on context.

  • Deborah Terry

    But when did the behavior originate? Age of the dog might be another variable to consider. Is it instinct? I always joke they learn it puppy school.

  • Emma

    Interesting! I think you could look at fur type as well as nose length, because maybe it is also the fur around the eyes, and nose that obstructs the view too

  • Rene

    I always interpreted the head tilt as a sign of curiosity. *Squeaky sound* "Oh, what is THAT?" (head tilt). My daughter's Boston Terrier does the head tilt whenever he hears a new sound, almost consistently. When he still had floppy ears, it made him very (VERY) endearing! He's still endearing, of course; he's my grandpuppy, after all! :-)

  • Eva

    It makes sense as the dogs scan only half of our face. I believe it is the right side (?) which shows the emotion better and it has been concluded that all dogs first look at that side of face when we comunicate with them. They know us so well, after living with us for millenia.

  • Erin

    It could be a combination of both. Dogs tilt their head to see us better and to angle their ears to hear a strange sound better?

  • Kay

    Hm interesting. My little Jack Russell does it a lot when I speak to him even if he's not looking at me, in fact quite often he will tilt his head then look out the window (work that one out). My big girl rarely tilts her head, I wouldn't say her nose was any less likely to get in the way than the little guys.

  • Rebecca

    I also have a pit bull. He tilts his head in response to unusual sounds (squeaks, creepy whirring noise made by the motor on the animatronic reindeer, the sonar signal sound from my iphone, bagpipes, etc.). I've never had him cock his head at me unless he thought I was making a weird sound (voices or farts don't illicite a response, by the way). LOL

  • http://dizzy7396@googlemail.com Debz

    My Ridgeback tilts his head and looks above my head when i speak to him. Its a bit spooky actually

  • http://Facebook Tina

    My dog tilts hes head when he hears a noise upstairs by someone.

  • http://fACEBOOK Damion

    I would have to agree with Jennifer; My Rottweiler and some of my friends' dogs of different breeds tilt their heads with toys, hidden or in view. She also does it with the TV and laptop, with music, noises and speech. Although a start, I feel the theory may be too simplistic...

  • Emily

    Height of the dog may also make a difference. I have an Irish Wolfhound who doesn't do much head tilting, even though she is dolichocephalic. Because she is so tall, she doesn't have to look up very much so I don't think her muzzle gets in the way as much.

  • Elizabeth Bram

    Hmm. interesting - but what about when the dog tilts their head at hearing a noise, but isn't looking at you at all? My dog does this - as though he is unsure about from where the noise even originates? Admittedly, my labradoodle has a peripheral vision deficit (adopted rescue who was so shut down when we adopted her that she wouldn't even look us in the eye..). She now does look us in the eye (especially if a treat is involved!) but perhaps her visual deficit plays into this as well..

  • Jerry

    my hypothesis would be that dogs tilt their heads by instinct to focus on a Sound. This reminds me of how foxes hunt mice in the snow.

  • http://wayoutonthecorner.blogspot.com/ Feralucce

    I always assumed that they did it for the same reason people do it.

  • Michelle Youngblood

    Wow I never knew that. I always thought it was there way of trying to understand.

  • http://project2heal.org charlie Petrizzo

    I don't know about this. I just tried it with my dogs and my back to them and my wife watch them. My Labrador still gave the head cock and was looking at the back of a white door. I think we may be going a bit too far with canine psychology and reading into things for the purpose of advancing our own research.

  • Brenda OShea

    My dog does it when she is quizzical about anything new or different she hasn't seen before. A stuffed snowman got 5 tilts. A ground squirrel got about seven different tilts. It's like she is really checking out something new.

  • hakirby

    I always figured it was my dog's way of saying "what the HELL are you doing?"

  • K. M. Kelley

    That is interesting and makes a lot of sense, but I think my dogs know I can not resist the level of head titlting cuteness and use this as a method of gaining snacks or pretty much anything else their fuzzy hearts desire. I am a complete sucker for the head tilt!

  • James

    But dogs so often do it during a high pitched or new noise they hear. My boston terrier can certainly see past his very short snout and very frequently does it out of curiosity. So how would that be explained by this theory? Surely there are other factors which influence this apparent difference between short and long nose dogs. Maybe dogs with long snouts have less acute hearing because their sense of smell is much more rreliable than short snout dogs. Dogs wwith flat noses tend to have better hearing and so maybe thats why they tilt their head less. Because they can locate and identify a noise somewhat faster than the others?

  • Lynda Hellen

    I have never had a dog do this. Maybe they are all ignoring me or don't care what I say. :)

  • Leslie

    My miniature pincher does this when you speak to him, make funny high pitch sounds & the best is when we're in the car & a sound/instrument in a song or a commercial will catch his attention & he will look @ the radio & tilt his head back & forth & listen. My other miniature pincher dislike iProducts notifications & will jump out of bed & off the couch & take herself to another room if I don't have it muted. Same thing happens when we are watching tv.

  • Cullen

    "While this is a significant difference in percentage, Coren believes that since even the brachycephalic dogs have a relatively high percentage of head tilting, even flatter muzzles may still obstruct vision to some extent."

    Or maybe the hypothesis is wrong. Ever consider that?

  • sara

    My dog used to alternate sides as i was talking to her. Her head would do a little one two three movement to the right then to the left. I dont feel it was sight as when she was older she became blind and still did it. hearing maybe... the research should include hearing tests for the dogs as one side maybe more dominant. it is a study which i feel will never be a conclusive answer

  • JodiLaForce

    Interesting theory, but I think it's inaccurate. My dog tilts her head all of the time. When I talk to her, when she sees other animals, when I turn on the vacuum... mostly when she see something new or is processing information. I think the head tilt is a sing all of "what the hell is that?"

  • Laura Jones

    I'm not sure I buy it. It's interesting, but, from a scientific perspective, there are just so many other factors that could play into this behavior. For instance, it's possible that this could be a sign of curiosity, kind of like raised eyebrows for humans, so the percentage of dogs that do this could be limited by its intelligence and social aptitude for human interaction. So, brachycephalic breeds, which are not known for their intelligence OR sociability, simply have a decreased incidence of this for that reason. This hypothesis is, in my opinion, a post-hoc-ergo-prompter-hoc fallacy.

  • Stealthy

    The only problem with this hypothesis is that dogs will do this, when you are high and well above them. Such as standing right in front of them as they look up at you, or at a distance where they are looking outward. This hypothesis would only make sense if you were beneath the height of said dog, and the dog had to get it's muzzle out of the way to see you. Cool however that it is being looked in to in order to understand and keep evolving the communication between man's best friend and man.

  • doglover

    Based on my own observations, I go with the "curious" explanation, as in "what's that?"

  • Linda C. Makela

    My cat does the same thing!!

  • Lynda

    I have retrievers, I find they only tilt when hearing an unexpected or unexplained noise, like they are trying to work out where it comes from.

  • Joanne

    My personal dogs that have done it have been my more submissive dogs without exception. My more dominant dogs only do it when listening intently to a very exciting sound. My more submissive dogs do it every time I speak to them. It always accompanies sound even if the dog has been gazing at me without the head tilt before the sound was made. I have greyhounds and half do it often and half almost never head tilt. Have noticed about the same thing in my 300 fosters. I have to make a very strange or interesting sound to get them to tilt their head to get a cute photograph. They do not do it when simply looking at me. Puppies all seem to do it though so maybe a submissive puppy behavior that is retained by some more submissive adults?

  • Kimberly

    I have been blessed with owning, fostering, and teaching many different breeds. What I have found is that when I ask something in the form of a question, I almost always receive a head tilt(especially if it is a question that is familiar to them through learning, which has produced a positive outcome). I can just say, "do you?" ears perk up and I get a head tilt, doesn't matter what the question ends with. Their "doglish", whether it be a verbal or non-verbal response, let's me know if they understand/stood the question asked. If I just make a statement, I get no head tilt. I have even done this with my back to them looking in the mirror. Question form...head tilt, statement...well you get it. :)

  • Susan O’Connell

    I don't know...
    Henry (chocolate lab) head-tilts like crazy at the sound of certain - very specific - words: cookie, treat, car, ride, go, out, leash, walk, Chet (his bff), park, play, and fun (there are others, but these are the biggies). He'll tilt whether or not the person uttering the words is near him.

  • Caolifhionne Mears

    Nonsense. Dogs may tilt their heads at ANY unidentified sound, regardless of who or what is making it. When an old radio (the sort that doesn't have any digital displays and therefor doesn't 'move') plays some unusual sound a dog will tilt it's head. Their ears are designed to capture and channel sounds efficiently, more so in the upright ear breeds, and by tilting their heads they are triangulating the placement of sound origin.

  • Penney Lane

    I believe a lot more study of this behavior is needed even for a hypothesis. There are simply too many reasons for a head tilt in a dog for it to be related just to length of the nose. Curiosity and hearing are the main reasons I believe.. trying to hear a sound more clearly or if it is a new object to hear a sound better and if it makes one, the expression of curiousness about sound also... Radius of hearing and hearing impairment could be part of the reason. ALSO what about dogs are just plain curious about changes in environment and smarter.. The question is do deaf or blind dogs do this? What size of study is this and if it isn't a large study group with all the different possibilities to me, it is bad science and not believable. :).

  • watani

    The researchers should wear an artificial approximate nose, muzzle, to see if they need to tilt their head to see over it when concentrating on people speaking to them.

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