Have you ever caught your dog tilting his head to the side, perhaps when he hears a strange sound or if you mention a "W-A-L-K"? Dog owners and scientists alike have come up with all sorts of explanations for this behavior, from compensating for their muzzles to “adjusting” their ear flaps! This captivating piece of animal behavior always seems to convince you that your dog is "paying attention" to you, but what are the truths behind this behavior? While nothing has been unequivocally proven to be the cause, here are a few popular ideas that current animal experts have been tossing around to explain this particular canine characteristic.
The Root of the Behavior
Stanley Coren, a doctor in both psychology and animal behavior at the University of British Columbia, thinks that the preliminary survey data he has gathered shows that it is indeed truly about the nose. Dogs tend to pay close attention to your facial changes and expressions, especially when you are the owner. They are also often capable of recognizing what words you are using, and the meanings behind them. This is why, according to Dr. Coren, your dog often tilts his head when you speak to him. He is quite literally trying to see you more clearly, and to confirm the meaning he perceives with additional visual cues. The survey conducted by Dr. Coren tested 582 dogs of various breeds, out of which 182 had flatter faces without a pronounced muzzle. After the preliminary data was collected, the results were fairly straightforward. Roughly 75% of the so-called “muzzled” dogs displayed head tilting when spoken to, while only 50% of non-muzzled dogs did so. This first batch of data seems to indicate that at least sometimes, your suspicions are correct: your dog is trying to pay attention. But while these preliminary results are interesting, even Dr. Coren states that you should not use this as your sole explanation for this behavior, as it is probably one of several factors. So, what other factors could be attributed to this? Well, another popular idea is that this tilting of the head may have a lot to do with how your dog’s ears are designed. Canines have a much wider range of frequencies that they are able to detect compared to you, but they also have a much harder time discerning the locations of those various sounds. Just like many other mammalian ears, your dog’s ears can detect extremely subtle variations in the way different sounds reach them. This means that when your dog is tilting his head to the side, he might be using this as a way to figure out where a strange sound is coming from.
Encouraging the Behavior
So, your dog likes to tilt his head. Now what? Well, usually this behavior is not something to be concerned with. The available data suggest that head tilting is a behavior that tends to be provoked by various sorts of external stimuli, like a new animal in the house or a strange sound. Oftentimes this behavior can be encouraged with positive feedback. From the perspective of you, the owner, reinforcing this behavior can improve the relationship between you and your canine companion. Engaging in training tactics such as these can foster positive animal behaviors, like general obedience and attentiveness. In the longer term, this behavior is indicative of your dog’s general well-being, as it most likely shows you that your dog’s reflexive behaviors are operating as they should be. Things like head tilting, ear positioning, and other dog behaviors are almost always your clearest signs of a happy, healthy dog. However, it is always wise to stay mindful of when these behaviors dissipate (and even disappear), as changes in your dog’s normal behaviors can be a sign of much larger issues. But what happens when your dog’s natural behaviors become irregular, happening all too often or with a greater sense of urgency?
Other Solutions and Considerations
As mentioned above, if your dog is tilting his head far too often and without stimulation, this could be a clear sign of balance issues. Your dog constantly rotating or cocking his head could very well be his only way to prevent himself from falling over. Just like human beings, when a dog experiences problems with its inner ear, it can lead to countless balance and orientation issues. This anomalous behavior is something that is generally pretty hard to miss, but you should still keep an eye out for it regularly. However, if you own an elderly animal, oftentimes this behavior is just a result of their advanced age.
The truth is, dogs are always going to present you with behaviors that may have you scratching your head, head tilts included! And while one should be attentive to these behaviors, they are hardly ever something to worry about. So, whether your dog does it because he’s hungry, happy, or just plain hyper, you can rest assured that it’s usually just a sign that he’s “having a ball!”