In the iconic painting “His Master’s Voice (opens in new tab),” a terrier raised his head while listening to his owner’s voice coming from a gramophone. This gesture is one that many dog owners are familiar with, but why do dogs tilt the their heads?
In a 2021 study in the journal Animal Cognition (opens in new tab), researchers in Hungary conducted the first scientific investigation of head tilt in dogs. They found that dogs can tilt their heads as they recall details they find meaningful.
“Head tilting in dogs is a relatively well-known behavior, but the most surprising thing for me is that no one before us has investigated it,” the lead author of the study. Andrea Sommese (opens in new tab)an ethologist (a scientist who studies natural animal behavior) at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, told Live Science.
In an earlier 2021 study in the journal Scientific Reports (opens in new tab), Sommese and his colleagues analyzed videos from around the world in which dog owners asked their pets to get them a toy by saying its name. Although 33 dogs did not learn the names of any new toys after three months of training, seven talented dogs learned more than 10 names during that time, with one female border collie, Whiskey, correctly 54 toys were identified.
While conducting the study that appeared in Scientific Reports, the researchers noticed that all 40 dogs shook their heads during the tests. The scientists next investigated when the dogs made these tilts.
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In the following Animal Cognition study, scientists found that gifted dogs tilted their heads 43% of the time when asked to retrieve a toy by name. Other dogs tilt their heads in only 2% of these cases.
“We’re not claiming that only intelligent dogs tilt their heads while average dogs never do it,” Sommese said. “Normal dogs do that too, some more often than others, but in this particular situation, when the owner asks for a toy by its name, only gifted dogs show a good inclination .”
These findings suggest that dog head-tilts are associated with the sounds that pets learn to locate what is important.
“Dogs tilt their heads in many situations, but they seem to only do so when they hear something that is very relevant to them,” Sommese said. “It looks like this behavior is strongly related to sound perception, and it could be something they do when they’re trying to listen more closely, or maybe when they’re a little confused, like humans do.”
In addition, the researchers found that the side tilt was consistent among the natural dogs throughout the 24 months of testing, but the favored side differed from dog to dog. This suggests that a part of each dog’s brain may favor the mental activity underlying head tilt, the scientists said. Just as humans generally prefer to use one hand over the other, many dog behaviors favor one side, such as the paw with which dogs reach for something (opens in new tab), the direction in which they favor wagging their tail (opens in new tab) and even they use the nostrils more for sniffing (opens in new tab)they explained.
Future research could explore what other sounds or contexts might trigger canine head-tilting, says Monique Udell (opens in new tab)a human-animal interaction researcher at Oregon State University, who was not involved in the studies.
“Studies like this are important because they remind us that we, as humans, also have a lot to learn about what dog body language is telling us,” Udell told Live Science.