If you're a dog owner, you've likely seen this scenario before: you ask your dog a typical question, like "wanna go out?" or "who's a good boy?" and immediately witness an adorable head tilt to one side. Some dogs do it every time your tone rings affectionate, others do it over certain words or phrases, but why do dogs tilt their heads?
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While there is no definite answer to that question at this time, medical and behavioral experts do have a few theories.
When do dogs tilt their heads?
The answer to this question will, of course, depend on the dog, but generally speaking, most dogs tilt their heads in response to sounds. These sounds can span a number of things, including a strange noise they're unfamiliar with, high-pitched sounds, or sometimes, a certain word that tends to get them excited (think: eat, out, ride, park, etc…)
Many dogs that do tilt their heads will do so in response to a question asked by their owner or another human they may have a special bond with, although sometimes dogs can become triggered by an odd sound from a TV set, the radio, or even from something off in the distance that we, ourselves, can barely hear.
Why do they do it?
While PetMD asserts that there is no scientific explanation for the all-too adorable head tilt some dogs display, there are several theories that may shine a light on why it can be seen:
A close bond: One behaviorist quoted in the report suggests that some dogs tilt their heads when their owners speak to them because they have a close bond with that person, and seek to understand what the human is attempting to communicate.
Curiosity: Another behaviorist theorizes that a twist of the head may signify interest or curiosity over a sound they may not be entirely familiar with, hence dogs tilting their heads over a strange noise on the television set, or when a person asks them a question with a raised or high-pitched vocal inflection.
As dogs tend to learn by association, it is also possible that your dog has simply trained himself to tilt his head when met with certain tones or phrases. If you react in a positive manner each time he tilts his head, it could be that he has learned to associate the twisting of his head with some type of reward, be that a walk, a bathroom break outside, or even just praise and attention.
Other possible meanings
While it would be easy to assume that your dog is tilting her head over a sound you or something around you is making, some believe that the head twist may actually be made in an effort to see better. Dogs with long muzzles are generally better able to see things far away, thanks to the shape of their faces. Psychology Today supposes that when some dogs tilt their heads, they may actually be doing so in an effort to move their nose out of the way of their field of vision so that they can see the person who is talking to them.
Why would a dog need to see you in order to understand what you're asking of her? Dogs rely on their sense of sight to read various cues from those around them, including people, according to VCA Hospitals. By examining the body language and facial expressions of the person they are attempting to communicate with, a dog has a better chance at determining what's being asked of them and whether a situation is one they should be concerned about. Of course, this theory doesn't really explain why pug-nosed, or brachycephalic dog breeds tilt their heads, as they are more adept at spotting things right in front of their already flat faces.