You have probably noticed your dog doing this before: an adorable move of the head that tilts to the side followed by a pair of penetrating widen eyes. This adorable move seems to say: ‘I am listening’ and it is well known as the ‘head tilt’. But cuteness aside, what is really going on when a dog head tilts in response to a sound?
Here are a few possible explanations:
They can hear better: a dog will tilt the head to the side in order to hear more clearly. Their movable earflaps help them locate the source of a sound while the brain works with the time differences between the sound reaching each ear. When the head is turned and tilted, the ears become more exposed in an ‘up and forward’ position. The result is that they are catching up clearer sounds.
Smartness: a dog might have learned to tilt the head to the side simply because he/she gets a reward. We find so cute when our dog tilt its head that we tend to respond to the behavior with positive reinforcement. We might say ‘awe’ in a pleasing tone of voice or offer the dog a treat, encouraging the activity with such reactions.
They are reading us: the muscles of a dog’s middle ear are controlled by a part of the brain that is also responsible for facial expressions and head movements. By observing us, a dog becomes familiar with our tone of voice, body language and eye movement. So when a dog tilts its head, he/she might be trying to perceive what we are saying, as well as communicating to us that he/she is listening.
They can’t see our faces: Dr. Stanley Coren wrote in Psychology Today in 2013 a theory that dogs with larger muzzles are more frequent head-tilters. He observed that dogs with longer muzzles have difficulty viewing a speaker’s entire face and compares it to how our vision is obstructed if we hold a fist to our nose and view the world as a dog does.
So to summarize, dogs tilt their heads because they empathize with us so much! They want to hang on to every expression we make, to every word we say. They want to make sure they don’t miss anything! Adorable right? Oh, and also because of the treats!