When dogs tilt their heads, they give off some of the cutest, most human-like communication skills, but what are they actually expressing or accomplishing with these head-tilts? According to the American Kennel Club, our furry friends tilt their heads for a variety of reasons, including trying to hear better spatially and pay better attention to us.
There has also been new research that head-tilting could involve other aspects of communication, like being able to visually see and therefore hear us better. This study also suggested that dogs use tilting their heads as a way to concentrate and recall memories. These researchers also found that dogs have a preferred side to tilt their heads, similar to how we can be left- or right-handed.
Head Tilting as Listening
While dogs are able to hear and distinguish from a range of sound frequencies that we aren’t able to, they are often limited when it comes to localizing the sounds they hear. Dogs have ear flaps that can serve as a barrier to hearing different sounds, no matter the pitch or frequency, due to the physical covering of their ear canals.
One way dogs compensate for this barrier is by tilting their heads, so their ear flaps move to collect enough sound and they can determine where the sound is coming from. Many times, though, dogs tilt their heads when they’re looking straight at you, not trying to determine where the sound is coming from.
This head tilting could be due to another kind of listening. Instead of trying to place the sound, your pup is likely trying to determine what you’re saying and is tilting his head to show concentration, similar to how humans communicate best with active listening. This aspect of head tilting also allows your pup to see you better, which also helps with communication. Especially when dogs have long snouts, the head tilts broaden their range of vision and allows them to see your face better.
The Role of Positive Reinforcement
Oftentimes, when you respond to your pup’s head tilting in an affectionate way, this will encourage him to keep repeating the behavior. The positive reinforcement happens in other ways, too.
For example, if you ask your dog if he wants to go for a walk, he may tilt his head to the side in response. If you then respond to this behavior by going on a walk, your dog may interpret this as a reward. Positive reinforcement works by using this reward-based system to teach and reinforce positive behaviors. Once your dog makes the connection, he’ll begin to associate the behavior of tilting his head with the response of going on a walk. The same goes for asking if he’s hungry or wants to eat followed by feeding him.
Could Head Tilting Mean a Medical Problem?
In extreme cases, head tilting could be a possible indicator for an ear infection. You would notice this if your pup was tilting his head in a non-communicative way, and if his ear canal seems to be causing your dog pain or itchiness. Usually, dogs will experience the symptom of an itchy ear with other common symptoms, like an odor, discharge, or discoloration.
If you’re worried your dog may have an ear infection, we recommend contacting your veterinarian. They may recommend medication or changing a health approach to your dog’s nutrition. In most instances, however, dogs tilt their heads in a completely normal way and can be encouraged when it’s done expressively. Your dog will try whatever he can to get your attention, so using this trick of cuteness is the perfect way to guarantee some extra belly rubs.