Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Did you ever notice the adorable manner in which some dogs cock their heads to the left or right when they hear a certain sound or a particular word we speak? In this article we'll investigate some possible reasons for this cute canine expression.

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Nipper - The Dog & The Phonograph

Back in England in the 1880's there was a fox terrier named Nipper. After Nipper's owner died he was adopted by an artist named Francois Barraud. Nipper would sit in front of the phonograph and tilt his head while listening to the sounds. The artist speculated Nipper was waiting to hear his deceased masters voice and this inspired the artist to paint the famous symbol later adopted by RCA!

Locating The Sound Source

Some believe the head tilt is simply a way for the dog to aid them in locating the sound's source. By adjusting their pinnae (outer ears) they can judge how far the sound is from them and who or what is the originator if the sound. So the head tilt may merely be an aid for a dog to hear better. That's what Alexandra Horowitz believes and is reiterated in her book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know. She also states this is something a dog isn't really good at as are we humans, even-though they can hear high frequency sounds that we cannot detect!

Tilting to Understand Our Words

I like to believe a dog tilts his head because he's trying to understand what we're saying to him. That the dog is picking out familiar words, sounds, and tones to puzzle together a sort of dog to human translator he associates to what's important to him like a reward or something really special such as a walk or a doggy treat!
The facial expressions of a dog are controlled by the muscles of the dogs middle ear. The middle ear muscles are controlled by the part of the brain called the nucleus ambiguus which is in charge of facial expressions as well as head movements, so it stands to reason your dogs head tilt means he's saying I'm listening and trying to communicate back to you!

Steven R. Lindsay’s Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training agrees by saying the head tilt is a sort of combination response of physiological and communication cues the dog is trying to identify by picking out familiar words and intonations associated with a pleasant activity or reward.

Lindsay also observed that dogs that are "socially apprehensive" (dogs having fears, anxieties and phobias) don't exhibit this head tilting behavior like the emotional well adjusted dog.

Muzzle Size?

Another theory of why dogs tilt their heads is because of their muzzle (snout) size. Dogs with larger muzzles cannot see our faces as clearly as dogs with smaller muzzles like Yorkshire Terriers, Pugs and Pekingese. Dogs use body language, eye movements, and facial expressions to communicate so it's important they see our faces and cocking their heads helps them to do so reasons Dr. Stanley Coren. Coren goes onto suggest the dogs head tilt helps them view the speaker's mouth in an effort to understand what is being communicated and that flatter faced dogs may tilt less because they don't have to compensate for prominent muzzles.

On a side note, our departed Yorkie named 'Bumpsters' did react to certain words by tilting his head. 'Go' and 'Out' were two words that would definitely trigger the head tilt every time. So whatever is the reason for the head tilt, the one sure fact still remains among all these theories - the dog's head tilt is just so darned cute!

By Tom Matteo