Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley June 06, 2020
There are few behaviors cuter than when a dog tilts their head while they are listening to you. The internet has many videos of German shepherd puppies tilting their heads, with their big ears flopping back and forth. Dog owners may deliberately make certain noises just to elicit this response from their dogs because we enjoy it so much. While we may find this behavior adorable, the head tilt is an important behavior for how dogs hear the world and how they interpret us. In this article, we will discuss the behavior’s importance.
Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?
Dogs tilt their heads in order to hear sounds better and pinpoint the location of the sound. Dogs may also tilt their heads in order to listen closely to the words we are saying to them or to observe us better while we are talking to them. Moreover, the behavior could also be a sign of a health issue.
There is not much scientific research into why dogs tilt their heads in response to certain sounds. Much of the scientific research on head tilts in dogs is related on neurological and other health issues that can result in a head tilt.
How Does Head Tilting Help Dogs Hear?
The primary reason a dog will tilt their head is to get a better sense about where a sound is coming from. Dogs have a much better sense of hearing than humans, but they have a harder time pinpointing the source of the sound. To better understand this behavior, let’s learn more about dog ears, and then answer the question why do dogs tilt their heads in more detail.
- More about dog ears
There are three areas of the ear: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear includes the pinna and ear canal, which are responsible for collecting sound and transmitting it further into the ear for processing. The middle ear contains the ear drum and ossicle bones which also function to transmit sound for processing. The inner ear includes the vestibular organ, cochlea, and auditory nerve. The vestibular organ assists in maintaining balance and equilibrium. The cochlea turns sounds from the environment into electrical impulses, while the auditory nerve transmits these impulses to the brain (Cole, 2010).
- So why do dogs tilt their heads?
The pinna is a structure of the outer ear that catches sound waves and sends them into the inner parts of the ear (Cole, 2010). On dogs, the pinna includes the entire piece of ear that comes out of a dog’s head. Dogs have been intensively bred for a variety of purposes and morphological features, particularly in regard to hearing, ear shape, and ear size. Dogs can have erect ears, floppy ears, large, or small ears. Because of these morphological features, the pinna may interfere with sound coming into the ears. The head tilt helps to get the pinna in the correct position to figure out where a sound is coming from. Unlike humans, dogs can move their pinna independently of each other, which is helpful in pinpointing where a sound is coming from. Dogs may tilt their head towards the direction of the sound in order to hear it better (Cole, 2010). If you have a dog that enjoys hunting, you may notice they tilt their head on walks while staring at the ground. They likely hear moles and shrews under the ground and are trying to figure out where exactly they are.
Currently, there is no research looking into breed differences in head tilt behavior and if it is related to ear morphology, but that would be an interesting area of research.
Why Does My Dog Tilt Their Head When I Talk?
If your dog tilts their head when you are talking to them, then they are trying to understand the words you are saying to them. Dogs are incredibly intelligent and have evolved with us for a long time. They can understand us better than any other species, and that includes understanding what we are saying to them. Dogs, of course, cannot speak human language but they can understand the words we are saying to them (Ratcliffe & Reby, 2014). When they tilt their head, they may be trying to pick up on certain words that they know. Dogs can distinguish between dog-directed speech and human-directed speech. Many of us are guilty of using a “baby voice” when talking to our dogs, especially puppies. We speak in a higher pitch tone and at a slower pace. Research has shown that young dogs in particular will pay more attention to dog-directed speech, while older dogs will pay attention to dog-directed speech and normal speech (Ben-Aderet et al., 2017; Jeannin et al., 2017).
Your dog might also be tilting their head when you talk because they are trying to see you better. Dogs respond strongly to our body language and facial expressions when we are talking to them. Same as with dog ears, there is a wide range of morphologies for dog muzzles, from long muzzles on German Shepherds to short muzzles on Bulldogs. Dogs can have a hard time looking at things that are straight ahead of them because their muzzle is blocking some of their view. Tilting their head gives them a better field of vision to observe you.
A survey was conducted on dog head tilts. Of the 582 responses, 62% of the owners reported that their dog tilts their head when the owner speaks to the dog. The researcher also compared responses between owners of dogs with different muzzle lengths. The responses did support the hypothesis that dogs with longer muzzles would tilt their heads more because it is harder for them to see. About 70% of dogs with long muzzles displayed head tilting when their owner talks to them, compared to 52% of dogs with shorter muzzles (Coren, 2013). Does your dog tilt their head while you are talking to them? Have you noticed if they tilt their head at certain words or tones of voice? Does your dog have a long or short snout? If you have a head tilter, these are some interesting questions to consider.
Should I Be Concerned About Head Tilting?
In some cases, head tilting can be a sign of discomfort or caused by a serious health issue. Some dogs may tilt their head if they are feeling discomfort around their ear. This may be due to something as simple as water in the ear after a bath or a swim in the pool to more concerning issues such as ear mites, ear infections, or neurological issues. If your dog is frequently tilting their head and pawing or scratching at their ear, you might want to check the ears for irritation, infection, dirt, or ear mites. If your dog suddenly presents with a head tilt, you may want to make an appointment with your veterinarian.
In general, when a dog tilts their head, they are trying to hear better. Dogs have excellent hearing but are not great at identifying exactly where a sound is coming from. By tilting their head, the dog repositions their pinna to better localize a sound. If a dog tilts their head while you are speaking, they are trying to understand you better. They may be looking to identify key words that they understand or respond to the tone of voice that you use when you talk to them, especially if you use “baby talk”. By tilting their head, dogs with longer muzzles can also see you better, allowing them to read your gestures and facial expressions. Occasionally, a head tilt may be a sign of health issues ranging from discomfort to more severe neurological issues.
Ben-Aderet, T., Gallego-Abenza, M., Reby, D., and N. Mathevon. 2017. Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it? Proceedings of Royal Society B. 284:20162429.
Cole, L.K. 2010. Anatomy and physiology of the canine ear. Veterinary Dermatology 20:412-421
Coren, S. 2013. Why dogs may tilt their heads when you talk to them. Psychology Today.
Jeannin, S., Gilbert, C., Amy, M., and G. Leboucher. 2017. Pet-directed speech draws adult dogs’ attention more efficiently than Adult-directed speech. Scientific Reports 7:4980.
Ratcliffe, V.F., and D. Reby. 2014. Orienting asymmetries in dogs’ responses to different communicatory components of human speech. Current Biology 24:2908-2912.