Just like us, dogs use body language to communicate: Their emotions are known to be seen via their tails, stances, and eyes. But what about those endearing head tilts they give when we’re speaking to them? According to scientists, they may also be telling us something.
Beyond looking cute, head tilts can be a sign your dog is trying to listen. “It’s believed that dogs tilt their heads as a way to orient sounds,” Dr. Ragen McGowan, an animal behavior scientist at Purina, told USA Today in July. “They may be positioning their heads and ears in a way that helps them better determine where a sound is coming from.”
In other words, those tilted heads may be their way of saying, “I’m all ears!” McGowan did note, though, that sometimes humans encourage behaviors they find cute (like head tilts) by giving treats and extra affection, reinforcing the canine mannerism.
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That said, if you’ve noticed your dog tends to head-tilt when you say a certain word, that may not be a coincidence.
A 2021 study published in Animal Cognition showed that tilted heads may be linked to dogs “processing relevant, meaningful stimuli.” Specifically, dogs might move their heads subtly to the left upon hearing a familiar word, like the name of a toy, or seeing an object that triggers a memory.
Researchers analyzed 40 dogs and placed them in two categories — “gifted word learner” (GWL) and “typical” — based on how they acted when the owner requested a specific toy. All the dogs in the study went through the same training program and were familiarized with the spoken object names; 33 were “typical” dogs (18 of which were border collies) and seven were GWL dogs (all border collies).
“Only a few dogs can learn the name of objects (toys) even after a few exposures, while most (typical) dogs do not,” the study explained.
The findings revealed the “gifted word learner” dogs tilted their heads more than the “typical” dogs (43% to 2%) when they heard a request for a toy. Therefore, the team suggested that the “difference in the dogs’ behavior might be related to hearing meaningful words (for the GWL dogs) and could be a sign of increased attention.”
More research needs to be done, but the study of head tilts could pave the way to answering more questions about how dogs learn and live.
“The next step is asking more questions to get at what the head tilt really means,” Monique Udell, a human-animal interaction researcher at Oregon State University, told Science. “Can we use head tilting to predict word-learning aptitude, or attention, or memory?”
While every dog is different, with a unique style of body language, head tilts are one of the many physical cues that can help owners better understand how their pups experience the world — and us.