German Shepherd tilting its head

Key takeaway

When dogs tilt their heads it’s hard not to wonder about what it is they’re thinking. Tilting of the head can actually improve hearing, be a sign of empathy, or potentially a symptom of vestibular disease.

There’s no doubt that it is hard to resist giving snuggles on demand, offering up treats, or capturing that perfect photo when we get to see the signature dog head tilt pose.

A simple tilt of the head, accompanied by perked-up ears and innocent eyes, can be a sure-fire way to melt our hearts and easily become curious about what exactly our pet is finding to be so intriguing. Do they know that it might be one of our favorite poses, or is it something more than that?

Whether it's an unfamiliar sound or a foreign object they have yet to experience, there are several reasons that bring the signature head tilt to play. In this blog post, we’ll go over those reasons and will explain when it should be a concern necessary for visiting a vet.

Reasons dogs tilt their heads

1. Improve Hearing

It is almost a naturally logical explanation that when a dog tilts their heads and perks up their ears, it's so they can hear better or attempt to identify an unfamiliar sound. That thought is not too far off from what could be the reason behind your dog’s head tilt.

Dogs have the ability to identify a range of frequencies that humans are unable to pick up, and even with their superior ability to hear higher or lower frequencies, dogs are unable to pinpoint the source of a sound the same way that humans can. To offset that, a dog’s brain can differentiate the time it took it to reach each ear to help identify where the sound came from, even by a slight tilt of the head.

If you notice that your pet is struggling to respond to sounds or certain frequencies, this may be a sign of deafness in dogs. While your dog might be tilting its head to improve its hearing capabilities, this could also be a potential warning sign of hearing impairment. If reaction and responses become limited, it may be time to schedule an appointment with a vet.

2. Improve Vision

We’ve noticed that dogs often tilt their heads in response to an unfamiliar sound, though there is a possibility that this might occur due to a dog’s anatomy. Perhaps even better than our human counterparts, dogs are continuously scanning our faces to better understand our current emotions. Dogs with longer noses may tilt their heads because it allows them the chance to clearly see without their snout in the way. 1

Dogs may tilt their heads to improve vision

Let’s try a simple test: Form a fist and hold it up to your nose, with your thumb and index finger being closest to your face. In this pose, you are viewing your surroundings in the way that a dog with a muzzle does. Switch your angle to look at a person’s face and you’ll quickly realize that the muzzle will impact some of your vision and affect how much of their face you’re able to see. Dogs rely on our mouth region to understand our emotional expressions. Next, tilt your head to look at the face and you’ll realize that you are able to see the mouth area.

3. Listen to Their Owners

Research has found that there is a possible link between a dog’s understanding of words and when they respond with the signature head tilt. In a study by Animal Cognition, dogs were placed into two categories: “gifted” and “typical” when given a series of commands.

This was done as a result of identifying that “gifted” dogs had a better understanding and were more likely to respond to the set of the dog commands to specific items, and the correlation between the tilting of their head became prevalent.2 When the dog tilted its head during the study, it was indicative that they were doing so to pay attention and respond to their owners’ commands.

4. Show Emotion

Have you ever noticed that your pet might be extra snuggly or attentive when you’re feeling down, or seem to be inquisitive when you’re feeling happy or sad? That is because dogs are constantly attempting to understand a person’s emotional state. This is why you often hear that a dog can sense your energy or pick up on your emotions.

By understanding a person’s emotional state, research suggests that dogs are empathetic and often mirror their owner’s emotion when they tilt their head. 3 Think of it as the dog form of dog body language.

5. Medical Problem

Like humans, a dog’s body functionality may be impacted and energy levels might decrease as they get older. Though factors such as age can play a role in your pet’s behavior, it is important to pay particular attention to your pet’s coordination and balance, as a lack of these two can be linked to vestibular disease in dogs. If your pet is tilting its head for no apparent reason, it may be time to schedule a visit with your vet.

Vestibular disease is a non-progressive balance disorder than can cause symptoms like falling, circling, a tilted head, and vomiting.

Vestibular disease is a non-progressive balance disorder that comes from issues affecting how a dog’s how vestibular organs communicate with the brain for body placement and coordination. The vestibular system

is found inside the brain, and it includes the inner ear and middle ear. Think of it as the sensory system that provides the body with balance and spatial orientation. With a hindrance to this system, dogs might be using the head tilt as a way to recalibrate their orientation and perception of space.

Should Dog Owners Encourage Head Tilting?

Pug tilting its head

As mentioned before, dogs are consistently looking for ways to better understand our emotions and to present opportunities so they can receive positive reinforcement. More than often than not, we are naturally inclined to give our pets a treat or present them with a smile when they cock their heads.

Over time, our dogs have turned the signature head tilt into a learned response to our very own actions. How we respond to the overly cute head tilt is what teaches our pets to continue the action, thus, encouraging positive reinforcement and continuing the learned behavior. The more we obsess and positively respond to the head tilt motion, our dogs will learn that this behavior is rewarded with some back scratches or even treats.

It is not to say that we should not ignore the fact that consistent head titling may be a sign of potentially serious health concerns. Make sure to pay attention to your dog’s ear health and coordination, as these factors, coupled with head tilting, can be linked to infection or disease.

Final Notes

There’s no denying that it can be hard to resist soaking in the very moment of cuteness or snapping a picture when a dog tilts their head with curiosity, ever so innocently. While this is often a positive sign that our dogs are listening to our commands or mimicking our emotions, it is important to pay attention to other symptoms that could be a sign of loss of hearing or vestibular disease.

We can assume with good intent that when our dogs tilt their head, it is so that they can hear us better, and this tends to be accurate more often than not. Unlike humans, dogs have a tougher time identifying where exactly a sound is coming from, thus, leading to leveraging the head tilt to help piece together the pieces of the sound puzzle. Do take note of how your dog is responding to this built-in spatial recognition tool given that if a dog is tilting their head often, while also experiencing a loss in balance and coordination, this could be a sign of vestibular disease.

That’s where Dutch comes into play. With Dutch, we offer telemedicine for pets in a simple way. You can contact a licensed veterinarian right from the comfort of your own home and get the necessary treatment for your pet, right to your door. As easy as it may be to offer up some treats in exchange for an adorable head tilt, it may be time to use Dutch as your platform to contact a vet if there are other related health concerns.

References

  1. Coren, Stanley. “Why Some Dogs Tilt Their Heads When You Talk to Them.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/canine-corner/201312/why-some-dogs-tilt-their-heads-when-you-talk-them

  2. Sommese, A., Miklósi, Á., Pogány, Á. et al. An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs. Anim Cogn (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01571-8

  3. Natalia, Albuquerque, et al. “Dogs Recognize Dog and Human Emotions.” Biology Letters, 1 Jan. 2016, https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsbl.2015.0883