The Real Reason Dogs Tilt Their Heads

Just about any dog owner has wondered why their pooch does that cute weird thing. But we should probably narrow that down. We're talking specifically about dogs' tendency to tilt their heads to the side, especially as a reaction to being spoken to by their master. This iconic gesture has produced countless viral videos. But why do dogs do it? There are a number of competing answers to this question. Perhaps the simplest, per the Huffington Post, is that tilting their heads is the unique way that dogs concentrate. When you see your dog's head tilting, she's anticipating that you'll say something important, and preparing to listen closely.

Another theory suggests that the head tilt assists dogs in the process of hearing. According to the VCA, even though dogs can hear frequencies that are imperceptible to humans, they have greater difficulty locating the sources of sounds. Unlike humans, dogs need to turn in the direction of a sound in order to capture it optimally. Likewise, dogs' brains rely on the subtle difference in time it takes for a sound wave to hit one ear compared to the other when locating a sound. So, by tilting their heads, dogs may be instinctively helping their brains pinpoint where sounds are coming from.

Dogs' head tilting might also be integral to how their brain actually processes those sounds. According to Live Science, dogs sometimes tilt their heads to the right and sometimes to the left, depending on the type of sound.

Tilting their heads can help dogs hear and see better

Scientists believe that a left tilt better enables a sound to be processed in the right hemisphere of a dog's brain, while a right tilt is better for processing in the left hemisphere.

After rounding up 250 canine subjects, these researchers played them two types of messages — all spoken by the particular dog's owner. The first messages were regular English phrases like "Come on, then!", but with all the emotion removed from the owner's voice. Researchers found that these messages produced a rightward head tilt in most dogs. The second audio clips were garbled nonsense phrases, but with very emotional-sounding intonation. Dogs tilted their heads to the left after hearing these. This indicates that, like humans, dogs process language in the left hemisphere of their brains and emotional content in the right — and the head tilt is a bodily reaction that helps canines differentiate between the two.

Yet another theory suggests that the head tilt is actually less about hearing, and more about vision. Imagine being a dog for a minute, with a long snout obstructing the bottom portion of your field of view. (You can simulate this by holding your fist over your nose and mouth.) Annoying, right? Well, per Psychology Today, tilting their heads might help dogs see more of the area that is obstructed by their snouts — especially in order to see our faces better.

Dogs might also do it to make you smile

To study this snouty hypothesis, Psychology Today conducted an informal study of dog owners. Of the owners of long-snouted dog breeds, 71 percent said their pups frequently tilted their heads when spoken to; 52 percent of the owners of flatter-faced dogs said the same. This imbalance seems to support the notion that head tilting helps long-faced dogs compensate for their obstructive snouts. But why do so many flat-faced dogs tilt their heads?

A final theory may answer this question. Per Psychology Today, another explanation is that dogs learned to do it because it makes humans happy. Dogs are incredibly adept at picking up on human social cues. Canines can tell when they've done something to make their owners happy, like tilting their cute little heads, and seeing a happy owner makes them more likely to do it again. Plus, if you praise your dog for head tilting or give them treats, then they're definitely incentivized to repeat the behavior. Further, Mental Floss explains, research has found that dogs who are better at picking up social cues are more likely to tilt their heads.

Could the whole head-tilting thing just be because humans find it really cute? Possibly, but this doesn't really explain how the behavior got started in the first place. The real answer is probably some combination of these theories; head tilting may help dogs concentrate, hear, see, and make their owners happy, all at once.