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Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads? A (Mostly) Normal Behavior Explained

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There are few things more adorable than a dog tilting their head. You know the look we’re talking about: a dog gets a curious, perhaps confused look on their face and turns their head dramatically to the side as if asking a question.

Sometimes, the dog even tilts their head back and forth, side to side. So cute! 

But what in the world causes a dog to tilt their head?

Can a dog really feel confused or question something?

Is head tilting in dogs even normal? 

Yellow Lab Tilting Head

In this article, we discuss the six leading theories about why dogs tilt their head, how you can encourage your dog to tilt their head on cue, and the reasons some head tilts might need veterinary care.  

Six Theories About Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads

Head tilting is one canine behavior that we just don’t know too much about. We have some good ideas about why dogs tilt their head, but veterinarians and other dog experts agree this is a behavior that needs some more research. 

Currently, there are six main theories about what prompts a dog to head tilt. In truth, a dog may tilt their head for one reason in one instance, then another reason at another time.  

1. Head Tilting Helps A Dog To See Better

The theory that a dog tilts the head to see better is probably the most widely believed and accepted. 

There is a simple experiment you can try to better understand. First, place your fist in front of your nose. This is your muzzle. If you look straight ahead, you’ll notice that your muzzle blurs and obscures most of the lower half of your vision. 

Now tilt your head to either side. Are you now able to see what was previously indistinct? 

Stanley Coren Ph.D., F.R.S.C. published a study in which he determined that dogs tilt their head to see better, usually in response to some kind of auditory stimulation.

Specifically, the study found that dogs with longer muzzles, like greyhounds and poodles, actually tilt their head more frequently than dogs with short muzzles, such as pugs and bulldogs. 

In an online survey conducted as part of Coren’s research, 52% of dog owners reported that their brachycephalic dogs — that is, dogs with flatter faces — tilted their head on a regular basis.

On the other hand, 71% of owners of dogs with larger muzzles said their dogs consistently tilt their head in response to a person or a noise.    

Coren’s survey and overall study support the theory that dogs tilt their head in order to see past their giant noses.     

2. Head Tilting Improves A Dog’s Hearing 

Think of the last time your dog heard a noise before you did. Did they perk up and look around before doing anything else? Did they tilt their head?

Looking around and these tilting actions were likely your dog trying to make sense of a sound by figuring out where it was coming from. 

Generally speaking, dogs have famously excellent hearing. The anatomy of their ears allows for very sensitive auditory ability.

A dog will hear a high-pitched noise or a soft sound long before us humans can. But even though a dog can hear frequencies that a human never will, a dog’s hearing ability still has its flaws. 

Dogs can hear a sound from a distance four times farther away than humans are able to, but they are not as good as humans at figuring out from which direction a sound is originating.

When a dog tilts their head, they’re likely trying to aim the outer part of their ears, called the pinnae, toward the sound to figure out where the potential excitement is located.  

3. A Dog Tilts Their Head To Better Understand 

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a professor and veterinary behaviorist at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine suggests that dogs tilt their head because they want to better understand something. 

The dog is a very intelligent animal, and it may tilt its head in response to something its human says that they find puzzling or strange.

For example, if you make an unusual, high-pitched noise, your dog may tilt their head while looking at you to figure out if it really was you making this uncharacteristic sound  

Dogs are also very curious. When a dog sees or hears something that they can’t quite make sense of — a dog barking on a TV show, for example — they may tilt their head while they try to clarify. 

This theory could explain why head tilting is such a common behavior amongst puppies. Like any other type of baby, a baby dog is trying to figure out the new world around them, and may tilt their head more as they do so.

4. A Dog Tilts Their Head In Expectation 

Sometimes, a dog tilts their head to show they are expecting something. 

Exciting words like “walk,” “dinner,” and “car” often prompt a tilting of the head because the dog is waiting for confirmation that they heard right, and that the exciting walk, meal, or car ride is really happening.   

We even know of a dog who tilts their head when they hear the name of their favorite toy or grooming store on TV!  

5. Dogs Are More Empathetic Than We Think

Chances are you are one of the many dog owners who believes dogs understand much more than they’re able to communicate. 

A study conducted by Dr Kun Guo of University of Lincoln in England found that dogs and other animals can read our facial expressions to determine our emotions.

The study found that dogs are especially skilled at reading our expressions of sadness, anger, and happiness. 

Since it’s not out of the question for dogs to try to cheer us up with cuddles, kisses, and tricks or positive behavior, then it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think they might tilt their heads in sympathy too.    

6. Head Tilting Is A Behavior That Is Positively Reinforced

For whatever the reason, a dog tilting its head is adorable. Think about the last time your pooch performed a head tilt. Did you “ooh” and “aww?” Reach out to offer your dog a pat? Snap a pic and post it to every single one of your social media channels? 

Dogs are quick studies and tend to repeat any behavior for which they receive positive reinforcement. Though there isn’t anything wrong with a dog tilting its head, getting a nice response from the person they love could be part of the reason your dog keeps doing it. 

How Can I Make My Dog Tilt Their Head?

You may be waiting to catch your dog in the act of head tilting so you can snap the perfect pic or video! It can be difficult to predict when your dog will turn their head to the side, so you could be waiting awhile. 

Dogs usually tilt their heads in response to: 

  • Strange sounds 
  • Their humans talking to them in front of their face 
  • A new toy or moving object they have never seen before 
  • Words that bring about something good, like “walk,” “treat,” or “car” 

If you still are not having much luck, then there are some fun tools you can try. For example, a number of sound-only YouTube videos exist specifically for getting dogs to tilt their heads. 

You can also try a toy like this one, which is sure to make your dog tilt its head in both confusion and wonderment.  

Is It Bad For Dogs To Tilt Their Heads?

More often than not, a dog that tilts their head is behaving normally, and you should have no cause for concern. A healthy dog will tilt their head in response to some level of noise. 

However, sometimes a dog tilts their head because of a health issue about which you should be aware.

Ear Infections 

Ear infections are relatively common in dogs of all breeds and ages. Dogs like cocker spaniels, basset hounds, and others with long ears are especially prone to ear infections.   

An external ear canal infection is likely to cause some pain and itching. These infections are caused by bacteria and yeast, and can lead to the occasional head tilt. 

A more serious infection of the middle ear may cause more frequent head tilting. These infections, officially called otitis media, occur when the aforementioned external ear canal infection spreads inward. 

Left untreated, ear infections can cause facial paralysis, a sense of unbalance, and even deafness. If you notice your dog shaking their head, scratching at their ears, and tilting their head, then you could have an ear infection on your hands. 

Other signs of an ear infection in dogs include:

  • Odor
  • Crustiness or scabbing in or around the ears
  • Redness and swelling in or around the ear canal
  • Dark discharge 

Neurological Issues

If you notice your dog holds their head to one side in a near-constant tilt, then there could be a neurological issue at play. 

One common neurological problem is vestibular disease. A head tilt brought on by this illness doesn’t look like the cute head tilt we have been discussing. Rather, it’s a constant tilt and looks almost as if the dog is trying to put their ear to the ground to listen for something. 

Most common in older dogs, vestibular disease can appear suddenly and disturbs the dog’s sense of balance. Sometimes, vestibular disease is idiopathic, meaning it does not seem to have a specific cause.

Other times, vestibular disease is caused by an untreated ear infection, head trauma, hypothyroidism, tumors, or toxic substances.  

Often accompanying vestibular disease is vomiting due to a sense of vertigo.        

A dog that tilts their head toward a sound is likely a healthy dog. But if you notice your dog tilting their head without any auditory stimulation, then it may be worth calling your veterinarian.  

Frequently Asked Questions About Dogs And Head Tilting

Is it normal for a dog to tilt its head?

In most cases, head tilting is a completely normal behavior for dogs and puppies of all breeds and ages. A dog might tilt their head to better focus on something, to communicate empathy, or in expectation of something exciting. But in some cases, a head tilt might mean an injury or illness like an ear infection, vestibular disease, or tumor.  

Do dogs tilt their heads because they are confused?

Confusion - is this why dog's tilt their head?
Words with Dogs: Adelle and Linus use body language to help define the word confusion.

A dog may tilt their head because they’re trying to concentrate on something in order to figure out what it is, why it’s happening, or if it’s a sound, where it is coming from. Humans might classify this as being confused, but a dog tilting their head is completely normal behavior.  

How can I tell if my dog is tilting their head because of an ear infection? 

If your dog is tilting their head because of discomfort or infection in the ear, then the head tilt will be accompanied by other symptoms. Common symptoms of an ear infection include an odor, discharge, and scratching. Your dog will also tilt their head consistently to the same infected side.  

Why is my old dog tilting their head? 

Though your older dog may be tilting their head for any of the reasons described above, an older dog could be more prone to vestibular disease. If you notice your dog is continuously tilting or leaning to one side, then it’s worth putting in a call to your vet. 

Is it mean to make a dog tilt their head? 

Because head tilting is a normal behavior for dogs, encouraging your dog to tilt their head is not inherently mean or abusive. But like with anything we ask our animals to do, it is important to encourage your dog to tilt their head in as natural a way as possible.

For example, instead of grabbing or touching your dog’s head in any way, use sound effects or speech to incite a natural response. 

What dog breeds tilt their heads the most? 

All dog breeds will tilt their heads at one time or another, though a study done by Dr. Stanley Coren found that breeds with longer noses tilt their heads more frequently than dogs with shorter or flatter noses.

This could be because a bigger muzzle blocks more of a dog’s vision, and tilting the head allows a dog to see what is otherwise obstructed. 

Final Thoughts 

There are few things cuter than a puppy or dog tilting their head as if asking a question. Though the exact reasons why a dog tilts their head is still unverified, veterinarians and dog behaviorists have come up with some compelling theories. 

Tilting their head to the side can help a dog to see or focus on something that is directly in front of it. It can also help a dog to determine from which direction a sound may be coming.

Other theories suggest that dogs tilt their heads when they are trying to make sense of something, when they are feeling empathy toward their humans, or when they know they’ll get a positive reinforcement like a pet or some baby talk. 

Although head tilting is a completely normal behavior in dogs, there are some instances in which it can be cause for concern.

Dog parents should notify their veterinarians if they notice their dog exhibiting symptoms of an ear infection or vestibular disease.

Chances are, a check up and some recovery time will mean you and your pooch are back head tilting for the ‘Gram in no time at all.

Our Linus was a regular head tilter. When we said his name he’d do the tilt like he was getting ready to respond back.

How about you? Does your dog tilt his or her head?

Tell us about your dog in the comment section below.

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Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads? - Yellow Lab Tilting Head

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