Whether we recognize it or not, we frequently attribute human qualities to the actions of our dogs. We interpret a calm and placid mouth shape as a smile, and we see kisses in puppy licks and plays for power in the act of leg humping. What’s the first thing you think when a dog tilts his head? Is it inquisitiveness? Interest? Are we simply superimposing the reasons why we cock our own heads onto dogs?
Why do dogs tilt their heads? As with most questions concerning canine behavior, there are many possible answers and few certainties. Some of them are purely physical or instinctual, others behavioral, and one that has distinctly medical implications. Let’s see if we can turn some heads with the results of our research! We’re going to explore:
- The physical and mechanical operation of dog senses
- Conditioned response based on tone, volume
- Dog emotions: empathy
- Off balance: idiopathic vestibular disease in dogs
- Shame or embarrassment
The physical and mechanical operation of dog senses
We all know that a dog’s sense of hearing is excellent, far outstripping our own. Stanley Coren recently conducted a survey on head tilt in dogs, and his findings were intriguing. His hypothesis was that the shape of a dog’s head and the length of his muzzle could explain, or at least affect, dog head tilting. His starting point was that a dog’s line of sight could be interrupted by his muzzle. Similar to the way that humans hear a strange sound, leading us to perk up and spin around to determine the source, dogs accomplish this by way of the tilted head.
For Coren, one possible explanation for the dog head tilt is that in changing the orientation of his head, a dog can better align his vision with his hearing. Coren’s muzzle-length hypothesis would lead you to assume that a brachycephalic dog, such as the Pug, would not tilt her head at all, while a German Shepherd would do it constantly. Owners of dogs with prominent noses reported that, when speaking to their pups, 71 percent routinely tilted their heads, compared to 52 percent of short or flat-muzzled dogs. The survey results showed that, in practice, the difference is only one of degree.
I see my dog, a Bluetick Coonhound, do it all the time when we’re out hiking. At the sound of a cracking twig or rustling leaf, particularly at a distance, she’ll stop dead in her tracks, turn her head in the general direction of the disturbance, and then tilt her head for further information. When the perceived disturbance is within easy distance, she usually just takes off at full speed, and I have the perpetually sore elbows to prove it.
Conditioned response based on tone, volume
Dogs may not have the power of human speech, but frequently their reception of praise and censure is written on the body. If you’ve ever shouted at your dog in a moment of frustration, you may have seen her shrink or cringe at the discordant sound. Dogs might blink, tuck their tail between their legs, or even shudder.
Our dogs become accustomed to how they are treated and are especially attuned to the volume, tone, and timbre of our voices. Your words are far less important to a dog than the manner in which they are expressed. I thought, at one point, that the only word my dog recognized — or chose to acknowledge — was the word “treat.” When I offer her one, I almost always say, “Would you like a baby treat?” Lately, I’ve noticed that she sits down when all I’ve said are the words, “Would you like …”
In the context of canine head tilting, the physical response may be learned. A certain word, enunciated at a certain volume or with a particular tone, may elicit a head turn from a dog. Why? Over time, dogs learn to associate the quality of these sounds with an expected outcome, be it a belly rub, a scratch behind the ears, or a delicious treat. In the same way that Ivan Pavlov found the chime of a bell caused dogs to salivate in anticipation of food, so too might head tilt in dogs be a conditioned response.
Dog emotions: empathy
You all know the basic difference between sympathy and empathy, right? Sympathy is the act of extending our ways of feeling or understanding and applying them to another’s experience. Empathy, on the other hand, is absorbing how another being feels and actually feeling the impact of it in a way that more decisively affects us, in a sense. Dogs are empathetic, reactive creatures.
As an emotional response, a dog’s head tilt could be an expression of understanding or outreach. If you twist an ankle on a dog walk and cry out in pain, your dog’s first response as you tumble to the ground might be to tilt his head before approaching you with a comforting lick. It’s been suggested that dogs who are accustomed to being treated lovingly tilt their heads far more frequently than dogs who have been neglected, abused, or not properly socialized.
The thought here is that dogs who are suspicious, fearful, or used to poor treatment tilt their heads less frequently than their well-cared-for peers. Living in a state of constant anxiety, these dogs exert their emotional energy in self-protection and consequently have less empathy to spare for others.
Off balance: idiopathic vestibular disease in dogs
Idiopathic vestibular disease in dogs affects balance and orientation, which are governed cooperatively, under normal circumstances, by the brain and inner ear. “Idiopathic” means that the root source or sources of the disorder are unclear or unknown. It is not dissimilar to a condition in humans called benign positional vertigo. Both are typically temporary conditions with a sudden onset. Dizziness and lack of physical stability are common symptoms.
In dogs, loss of balance or control over motor function can have a number of potential causes, ranging from physical trauma or injury to ear infection. It’s most commonly diagnosed in senior dogs, but not exclusive to a particular breed or age group. If your dog is suffering from vestibular disease, head tilting may be the first symptom you’ll notice, but it’s certainly not the most severe.
For one thing, the head tilting will be ongoing and repetitive, rather than occasional or reactive. Dogs with a vestibular disorder may stumble or become disoriented in places they usually find familiar and comfortable. They may fall down randomly, walk in circles, or simply spin around slowly and aimlessly. As the world turns, or seems to, dogs afflicted with this condition can start to experience nausea or vomiting.
Shame or embarrassment
Do you enjoy putting little clothes or costumes on your dogs? A while back, I found a fun little sweater for my dog, Baby, and couldn’t wait to get photos of her wearing it. When I looked through the pictures, I noticed that in many of the photos, her head was not only tilted but also angled downward. Part of this must have been the utter strangeness of being encased in this sweater, when she’d only ever gone about in the nude before.
If you examine this image carefully, you’ll also note the penetrating side-eye she’s giving me. Physical discomfort is one thing, but combined with that look in her eye, you get the distinct impression of shame or embarrassment. Of course, I’m clearly guilty of reading my own feelings in her facial expressions, which is the problem we started out with.
What’s behind your dog’s pleasing head tilt?
With the exception of vestibular disease, most of the reasons we’ve discussed here are conjectural or speculative. We’re still trying to interpret canine behavior through the lens of our own all-too-human experiences. What is provable and known is that the ear is a powerful dog organ. If you regularly clothe your dogs in costumes or cold-weather gear, try to stay away from items that cover or pin down your dog’s ears.
For dogs, normal head tilting could be an effect of habit, curiosity, empathy, intelligence gathering, or any of these depending on the context. As the owner of a 2-year-old prey-motivated scenthound, I’ve had to adapt more to her than she has to me. I have to keep my own eyes and ears open so that I can try to spot a squirrel, fox, or deer before she does, or risk getting pulled along.
Do your dogs tilt their heads? Do any of our explanations seem to accord with your experience? Have you developed other rationales? Let us know in the comments!