Why do dogs tilt their heads when we speak?

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Every dog lover knows that pose. A dog sits, staring intently at you, and cocks his head to one side. It’s charming. It’s endearing. It’s iconic.

Perhaps the most famous depiction of this classic doggy stance is “His Master’s Voice,” an 1887 painting by Francis Barraud depicting a terrier named Nipper raptly gazing at a phonograph player, head adorably tilted to one side. The portrayal is so appealing that RCA Records adopted it as a logo and advertising image.

When dogs tilt their heads to the side, they look curious, intelligent, and deeply focused on whatever has captured their attention.

But why do dogs tilt their heads? Is it really a sign of curiosity or intense focus as we perceive it? Or is something else going on?

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

As it turns out, there are several reasons a dog may tilt its head. This repositioning can indicate a few different things, depending on the situation.

What’s That Sound?

Dogs often tilt their heads when they hear an unfamiliar sound. While it may look like a simple sign of curiosity, this head movement actually enhances a dog’s hearing.

Dogs have a much keener sense of hearing than humans. However, human ears are structured in a way that makes it possible to hear sounds equally well from any direction. This is because our ear canals are exposed, allowing us to pick up sound waves no matter where the source is located in relation to us.

Dogs, on the other hand, have ear flaps that must be taken into account. These ear flaps block the ear canals from clearly receiving sounds in certain directions.

So when a dog tilts their head, they are often repositioning their ears to pick up a sound more clearly. 

The Better To See You With, My Dear

Hearing isn’t the only sense that a dog can improve by tilting its head. Much as the ear flaps can interfere with a dog’s hearing, a muzzle can interfere with a dog’s vision.

Human noses are small enough that we rarely notice them in our sightline. Dog muzzles are much larger and block out a more significant area in their vision.

Like humans, dogs gather a great deal of data about the world and their interactions through sight. What they see is especially important in communications with their humans.
Dogs look carefully at our posture, gestures, facial expressions, and other visual cues to guide them in their interactions. They can discern a great deal from the information they glean through the visuals we present. But in order to gather that information, they must be able to see us clearly.

When a dog looks at you intently and cocks their head, they are probably trying to get an unobstructed view of you so they can process this visual information.

Hey, I Know That Word!

Even though dogs can’t speak, they build a vocabulary. The average dog can learn 165 words, while the most intelligent breeds can learn up to 250 individual terms and phrases.

Dog owners often use the same words or phrases for daily activities with their dogs. Dogs quickly associate words like “walk,” “lunch/dinner,” “park,” “toy,” and “bed” with actions they enjoy and look forward to.

When dogs hear a word they know, they will often tilt their heads. Their humans often repeat the key words, and dogs want to make sure they’ve heard correctly. They anticipate this repetition, so they reposition their heads to hear as clearly as they can.

A dog’s sense of sight comes into play here, as well. When they hear words they know, they want a clear view of the human to anticipate actions and discern intent.

The Human Loves It When I Do This

One of the most effective tools in dog training is reinforcement. When you reward your dog with something they like – such as attention, praise, toys, or treats – a dog quickly learns to repeat this behaviour in hopes of more rewards.

Most dog lovers react instinctively to the head tilt. It’s just so cute! Our positive reactions to this pose often result in positive attention, like petting or praising our dogs. Intentionally or not, this reaction encourages our dogs to repeat the behaviour in the future.

Since dogs are highly attuned to their humans’ reactions, indicated by posture, tone of voice, and facial expressions, dogs pick up on our delight at their head-tilting even if we don’t explicitly praise or reward them. Most dogs want to please their humans, so when they discover that tilting their heads results in human approval, they are likely to repeat it.

Should You Be Concerned If Your Dog Is Tilting Their Head?

Tilting its head is a natural behaviour in dogs. They use it to improve their sensory input or to achieve the desired result from their humans. Because this behaviour is common and innate in dogs, it is usually not a source of concern.

However, there are rare cases in which a dog’s constant head-tilting can be a symptom of a problem.

Usually, dogs tilt their heads when they hear strange noises, they are focused on their humans or an unfamiliar object, or they hear a familiar vocabulary word. If your dog tilts their head in other circumstances, it might be an indication that you should consult a vet.

The most common issue that presents itself in constant head-tilting is an impairment of the vestibular system. This system regulates a dog’s sense of balance and spatial orientation.

If your dog exhibits inexplicable head-tilting along with issues like falling down regularly or bumping into walls and other objects, a trip to the vet may be appropriate.

The Bottom Line

Head-tilting is not just a cute habit dogs engage in to charm their humans. It actually serves several purposes in helping the dog interpret the world around them. It can improve their hearing and sight, especially important when interacting with humans.

It can also be a behaviour that humans have reinforced with praise or attention.

Of course, that doesn’t make it any less adorable.