Have You Ever Wondered Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads? Now You Know

There are many things to love about dogs, but one is how adorable they are when they tilt their heads while looking at you. It’s as if they are puzzled by your appearance, or perhaps they are trying to figure something out.

We tend to humanize the animals in our homes when we see this behavior, but there are also times when we just want to know the truth about what is going on.

Photo: Pexels/Julissa Helmuth

Fortunately, we have science on our side, and two scientific studies were performed to determine why dogs tilt their head. Those studies were both conducted by a postdoctoral student at Family Dog Project, Andrea Sommese.

The first of the two studies was published in Scientific Reports in July, 2021. The second study was published in the same Journal in October 2021.

The first study, titled “Word Learning Dogs (Canis familiaris) provide an animal model for studying exceptional performance” and the second study, “An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs,” looked into whether dogs processed information asymmetrically.

Photo: Pexels/Benjamin Farren

Forty dogs were used in total, including seven that were considered gifted. The humans would train their dogs to fetch a toy with a name on it.

Before the test was done, the scientist expected that the dogs would tilt their heads more often when they heard the name of the toy if head tilting is associated with processing information.

According to the study: “Dogs displaying a consistent preference for one side over time would suggest asymmetric processing of the verbal stimuli. Alternatively, the lack of a population-level bias would support that head-tilting represents a habitual, idiosyncratic behaviour related to attention.”

Photo: Flickr/celticfeminist License: CC BY-ND 2.0

The results showed something interesting in those who were gifted. They would tilt their head more significantly than the other dogs. In addition, it took three months to learn the names of 10 different toys.

The 33 normal dogs in the study could not learn the names of any of the toys in three months. They would still turn their heads to the side during the test, but it didn’t help.

The animal cognition study showed something interesting when it came to gifted dogs as well. They would tilt their heads 43% of the time, while normal dogs would tilt their head two percent of the time.

This showed that dogs would tilt their heads in different situations, but only if they felt something was relevant to them.

Photo: Flickr/r0sss License: CC BY-ND 2.0

Sommese also said in the study: “It seems that this behaviour is strongly associated with sound perception, and it might be something they do when they’re trying to listen more closely, or maybe when they are a bit confused, just like humans do.”

They also noticed that dogs had a favorite side to tilt their heads but it wasn’t the same from one dog to another. This could be similar to a human using their left or right hand.

In the end, they found out that dogs who understand the names of the objects would tilt their head very often. That is why they conclude: “Thus, we suggest a relationship between head-tilting and processing relevant, meaningful stimuli.”

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