The ‘head tilt.’ If you’ve ever owned or dog you’ll be able to picture this now. The one where they open their eyes really big, pin their ears back and angle their head to the side as if they are trying to look cute. You’ll usually notice it when your dog hears a strange sound or when the “W” word is mentioned. To us, the tilt seems to say, “I’m listening,” but what’s really going on when your dogs head tilts in response to a sound? Is he just being cute? Is he curious? Confused? Or is he trying to tell us something much more meaningful?
He’s probably learned by now, that when he does the ‘head tilt’, there’s usually something in it for him. An extra treat or “walkies” – but according to Mental Floss, there’s more to it than that. It’s all to do with our pup’s ability to empathise with humans and pick up on our emotions. Apparently, when a dog tilts his head, it’s a symbol that they are showing us empathy and that they are engaged. It’s hardly surprising when we know how in tune with our emotions our four legged pals can be. Dogs are extremely emotionally intelligent. They have an ability to understand our body language and are constantly trying to “read” our faces for information on our emotional state.
When a dog listens to your voice, he’s also trying to identify familiar words or tones. Dogs tilt their head to pick up on your tone and listen for specific words. According to Steven R. Lindsay’s “Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training,” the muscles of a dog’s middle ear are controlled by a part of the brain that’s also responsible for facial expressions and head movements, so when a canine tilts his head, he’s trying to perceive what you’re saying, as well as communicate to you that he’s listening.
It has also been suggested that there could be other contributing factors to the head tilt – such as the fact that a dog’s ear is constructed differently to our own. Their ability to locate where a noise is coming from isn’t as accurate as that of a human, so it’s also possible that they are adjusting their ears to pinpoint the source of a sound. Dogs will tilt their heads to reposition their ears to better judge the sound’s location and distance, and the turning of their head helps open up their ear canal.
Usually we are so fond of this behaviour, we commonly use positive reinforcement like praise or treats that, without intention, train our dogs to do the head tilt for rewards. Reacting in such a way encourages the activity, and the more a dog is praised for cocking its head, the more likely he is to repeat the gesture in the future.
However a persistent head tilt is a sign of a balance centre problem in dogs. It’s very similar to ‘vertigo’ in people. It may not need medical treatment, but it is always best to have the condition checked for a more serious underlying condition.