It is a phenomenon that virtually all dog owners will recognise; you say something to your dog or do something that catches your dog’s attention, and your dog tilts their head when looking at you, in a kind of “huh?” expression!
Because this behaviour is so common in dogs, it is something that most of us recognise and don’t really pay much mind to; unlike some of the other forms of canine body language that can be harder to interpret, the head-tilt gesture seems to be fairly obvious in meaning-it shows that your dog is paying attention, or interested in what you are saying.
But what is the real reasoning behind it, and why do dogs tilt their heads when you talk to them, or at other times? Read on to find out!
Tilting the head to one side places one of the dog’s ears higher on their heads than the other, and for dogs with floppy ears, helps to open up the ear canal so that they can hear better than before.
Dogs are very used to the constant presence of human speech, and they quickly learn to assess people’s tone of voice, along with their body language and general demeanour. However, when dogs listen to humans, they essentially hear a stream of babble, interspersed with the odd word that stands out and that they are familiar with-such as “walk” or “treat!”
If your dog picks up on one of these trigger words while you are talking, they might then tilt their head to hear more clearly and try to pick through the background babble to find out more about what you are talking about!
The effect is similar to listening to people speaking in a foreign language suddenly speaking a clear English word in the middle of the stream, such as “internet” or hospital-“ these words are things that first language English speakers can understand, and also, that sound incongruous in amongst another language to our ears-so it makes you pause and look!
You are also especially likely to see your dog tilt their head if you make a strange noise that they do not usually hear and that catches their attention, particularly if the sound is high pitched-such as playing the recorder!
When it comes to ears, it is fair to say that dog’s ears come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the large, pointed ears of breeds like the German shepherd, to floppy or flat ears that are close to the head, such as is the case with the Dogue de Bordeaux.
Dogs with pointed ears can move the position of their ears to better act as a funnel for sound, flicking their ears back and forwards to “tune in,” while dogs with floppy ears have more trouble doing this as their ears droop down!
Tilting the head can help dogs with either type of ears to hone in on the direction of a sound, such as they might do if they have wandered far from you on a walk, and can hear you calling them back but are not sure where you are.
Humans tilt their heads in lots of situations as well, such as when we are listening attentively, giving someone our full attention, or mirroring someone else’s behaviour, which is a form of social communication and bonding.
Dogs too may learn over time that the tilted head means paying attention, or they might respond to your feedback when they tilt their own heads, because this behaviour is cute and appealing and often, likely to lead to treats.
It is also possible that head-tilting helps dogs to read people’s facial expressions better, and again, they may use this gesture when you do something that they don’t understand or are uncertain about. This again is likely to happen if you make an odd noise or say something that catches your dog’s attention, when their head-tilt may be a form of question, like “huh?”
Whether or not the tilt actually does help your dog to better interpret what you are doing is a matter of debate-but the fact that head-tilting is often associated with something novel indicates that it might!
Dogs learn an awful lot of the things that they know through observation, and along with directional training, this is one of the core means by which dogs develop new skills and behaviours.
This means that a behaviour that is exhibited by one dog (particularly if that dog is the alpha, or high up in the pack ranking) will often be mimicked by the other dogs, as a form of social bonding, flattery and submission. While head-tilting is something that some dogs exhibit from a young age without ever being “shown” it by another dog, others might simply pick it up as they go along!