Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Most of us have all seen it, whether in person or on the Internet. There’s no shortage of cute dogs tilting their heads out of utter bewilderment.

June 21st, 2019

The dog head tilt: you can’t be a dog owner and not like it.

A dog tilting her head at the University of Washington.

As a first time dog owner, I can attest that one of the most interesting and entertaining things in the world is watching how your dog responds to new stimuli.

Quite often, you’ll get an adorable head tilt out of it. A completely innocent expression of pure confusion.

Is it just confusion though? Confusion doesn’t really explain why a dog has to tilt their head. There’s a lot more to the head tilt, and this article will dive into exactly why dogs do it.

High Level Reasons Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads

Here’s a quick and easy summary why dogs tilt their heads:

  • Genuine confusion/curiosity
  • To see better
  • To hear better
  • Possibly to show empathy
  • Possible vestibular syndrome or ear infection
  • It has been positively reinforced

All of these claims have gained traction among related sources on the topic. But they are scientifically backed to varying degrees.

Let’s look at each one in order and see if they make sense.

Genuine Confusion and/or Curiosity

We’ll start with the obvious answer.

Most of us have all seen it, whether in person or on the Internet. There’s no shortage of cute dogs tilting their heads out of utter bewilderment.

In fact, there’s a chance you could trigger it right now just by playing this Youtube video. It features no shortage of high-pitched, out-of-the-ordinary sounds that pique your dog’s interest.

We take confusion and curiosity to be the expected answer probably because humans do it as well. When we are confused, we also tend to tilt our heads to the side. It’s something we and our dogs have in common!

However, our dogs definitely do employ the head tilt a lot more than we do. Why is that? As we’ll see in the next few sections, it starts off with the way our dogs are built.

To See Better

Perhaps the structure of our dogs’ faces is one of the reasons the head tilt is a necessity.

It’s hard to sympathize with our dogs with this on first glance. Our noses don’t obstruct our vision. This is true even for the longest, pointiest-nosed among us.

Now imagine you had a snout. A quick way to realize this would be to put your first against your nose–now that’s quite a bit of visual impairment, isn’t it?

A dog sitting and looking up towards the sky.

Whenever our dogs are looking at us, they prefer to scan our entire face and body language to fully understand us. A head tilt helps accomplish that by getting the snout out of the way.

Relationship Between Snout Length and Head Tilt? Stanley Coren

This theory that the head tilt is used to unobstruct vision makes sense on paper. But how do we confirm it?

A simple survey was conducted to test this. Psychology Professor Stanley Coren, published a blog post in Psychology Today about it.

Categories of Snout Lengths

Before we get into the details, let’s learn a bit about dog snout lengths. It will help us understand the variables and results of the survey.

When it comes to snouts, we have three main categories.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the brachycephalic (flat-nosed) breeds. Examples include the English and French Bulldog, Boston Terrier, and Shih Tzu.

In the middle you have mesaticephalic (medium-snout) breeds. It’s a little hazy where you draw the line between these and long-snout breeds, but according to Coren himself in his article, examples include the Beagle and Golden Retriever.

Last but not least, you have dolichocephalic (long-snout) breeds. Examples include the Greyhound and Collies.

Coren’s Survey – Variables and Results

So, Stanley Coren released a survey to the Internet, asking owners to rate how often dogs tilted their heads when spoken to.

Firstly, he asked for owners to specify muzzle size, from brachycephalic to dolichocephalic.

Then, for the head tilting, he allowed for six possible responses: never, seldom, occasionally, frequently, most of the time, and always.

A response of “frequently,” “most of the time,” or “always” counted as a “head-tilting dog.”

The results were as follows: out of 582 survey completions, 71% of dolichocephalics were “head-tilting,” compared to 52% for brachycephalics.

The survey results certainly seem to corroborate the theory.

Evaluating Coren’s Survey

Coren’s survey was intended to be a quick method for him to get information from dog owners. He himself acknowledges that this is merely a “first step” toward finding the real answers.

And he’s right. An Internet survey allowing owners to self-identify their dog’s frequency of head tilting is bound to be inconsistent.

In addition, grouping “frequently,” “most of the time,” and “always” into the same bucket is not so appropriate, since those are quite varying degrees of frequencies.

Nonetheless, it remains the only real, commonly cited piece of statistical evidence we have of head tilting. And it certainly does make sense our dogs would head tilt to help them see better, given their snouts.

To Hear Better

Coren’s survey uncovered that 71% of long muzzle breeds frequently display head tilting.

But it also revealed that 52% of short muzzled breeds do it too, and that’s a significant amount. Surely their snouts don’t impede their vision, so how do we account for that?

We now look at how dogs may tilt their heads not only to see better, but to hear better as well.

A dog running along the grass, ears flying through the wind.

Dog Hearing vs. Human Hearing

When it comes to hearing, humans and dogs excel at it in different ways.

Humans can hear sounds ranging from about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.

Dogs can hear sounds ranging from roughly 40 Hz to 65,000 Hz. They are able to hear much higher frequencies, and are also able to hear them from much farther away.

However, they aren’t as good at locating the source of a sound as well as humans can. To make up for that, scientists say dogs employ the head tilt. Let’s take a closer look!

The Dog Ear – A Scientific Approach

Along your dog’s outer ear is the pinna. This is the soft part made of cartilage and covered by skin and fur.

The pinna plays a key component in allowing your dog to hear sounds, as it captures sound waves and directs them through the ear canal to hit the eardrum.

Psychologist Alexandra Horowitz writes in Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know that head tilting can help better position the pinna to help dogs locate the source of a sound.

To take this one step further, there is a part of the brainstem called the nucleus ambiguus that controls a dog’s head movements, as well as muscles in the middle ear that help it detect certain sounds.

The nucleus ambiguus literally ties together a dog’s head movements with the muscles that help them hear–that seems proof enough to me to conclude that dogs tilt their heads to hear better.

To Show Possible Empathy

When Googling related sources, top results such as this article from Mentalfloss and this article from Dogtime claim that “experts” say the head tilt has to do with a dog’s ability to empathize.

But the links they provide don’t send me to an expert’s written article or scientific study. So let’s re-evaluate this ourselves.

Dog Empathy Is Real, But Connection To Head Tilt?

A dog peeking her head from between my arms to look at the camera.

It’s no secret that dogs are very good at empathizing with humans. Here is just one study of many that suggests that.

That study featured a “trapped-other paradigm” where a human behind a closed door alternated between crying and humming Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. A dog was on the other side of the door. The experiment monitored their stress levels and response to the situation.

Though the research looked at only 34 dogs, the results suggest that dogs really do seem to just get us.

Upon hearing crying, the dogs’ stress levels spiked. Some dogs were able to master their emotions and push the door open to come to the human’s aide.

However, others were so intensely stressed that they froze and couldn’t help. Poor things! In either case, our dogs have an uncanny ability to empathize with humans.

Despite all this, it’s unclear to me how this relates to head tilting. Is there even a correlation?

Sure, as Dogster points out, the head tilt could be the first, immediate reaction your dog displays to a stressful event, but this is far from a guarantee.

I would conclude that while dogs do show empathy toward humans, the connection between that and head tilting has not yet been firmly established.

Possible Vestibular Syndrome or Ear Infection

There are cases where head tilting is cute, and cases where it’s not. There are times when it actually indicates a medical problem.

A consistent head tilt that’s not a reaction to some outer stimulus could signify a more serious issue.

Most often, head tilts have to do with ear infections. There are those yeast infections which are relatively treatable, and there are also those middle ear infections which are often more serious. Those are usually accompanied with persistent head tilts.

A graphic explaining why you may see a sudden loss of balance in dogs.

Basically, if your dog is consistently head tilting and losing balance, and it’s not as a reaction to external stimuli, take him to a vet!

Positive Reinforcement Encourages Head Tilting

We’ll finish on a positive note, quite literally!

Perhaps over the course of many instances, our dogs have simply learned that we really enjoy this head tilting business.

You could be the one responsible for encouraging this behavior! After all, whenever they do it, they are greeted with our warmest smiles, our sweetest praises, and a bunch of well-deserved pets.

It’s no doubt our dogs feel this, and this probably encourages repetition.

Conclusion

We’ve covered some possible reasons why dogs tilt their heads. The most likely scenario is that our dogs are confused, and just want to get a better look or listen at whatever it is that piqued their interest.

The current scientific rhetoric out there, while limited, supports this.

There are cases for the theory that dogs may head tilt to empathize with humans, but the real connection between those two has yet to be definitively proven.

Finally, dogs may do it because we humans like it.

In any case, more research is required. Expert Jill Goldman describes this in an AKC article as a complex reaction involving vision, hearing, and learning, and as such more research is needed to flesh out exactly what’s going on.

A dog tilting her head in front of a special obelisk structure.

Does your dog do the head tilt? We bet it’s the cutest thing ever. We hope you learned a thing or two about it from this post!

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