Why do dogs tilt their heads? A new study cracks the case

Pit Bull tilting their head to one side
(Image credit: Getty Images)

All dog owners are familiar with the adorable look their pooches will give them when they cock their heads to one side, but why do dogs tilt their heads in the first place?

Do they understand what we’re saying? Are they confused? Do they tilt their heads to hear our voices more clearly? Or do they just know that we find that look too irresistible? Despite what we may have thought in the past, very little research has ever been conducted into the reasons behind it.

A new study from Eötvös Loránd University, in Hungary, has found that this behavior may indicate that dogs are concentrating as their brains work on recalling information from a past similar event. But their initial intention was never to investigate a canine’s head tilting behavior.

Researchers made their discovery by chance whilst running a separate study into “gifted” dogs who were capable of memorizing multiple toy names in a short space of time. On average, canines are believed to struggle to remember the names of two toys at a time. The pooches that took part in the study, however – all border collies – were able to remember and collect at least ten toys that they had just been taught the names of.

During the study, researchers began to notice that these “gifted” dogs displayed a common pattern of behavior when asked to retrieve a particular toy – the head tilt. Scientists discovered that 43% of the “gifted” dogs would tilt their heads when asked to retrieve a toy. That’s compared to the 2% of other, “non-gifted” dogs. These pooches also seemed to show that they had a preferred side to tilt their head, too!

All of the dogs that took part in the study were familiar with the words the researchers used. However, only the gifted dogs who had been able to attach the correct meaning to each word consistently performed the tilting behavior.

That’s how the scientists were able to conclude that head tilting may be linked to mental processing, as it demonstrated a high level of concentration or attentiveness within the “gifted” dogs. These scientists believe that the pooch may be comparing the command with their memory of the toys they’ve previously seen. 

Chloe Petrylak

Chloe is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, who has more than ten years’ experience in creating animal-focussed content. From National Geographic to Animal Planet, Chloe’s passion for creating fact-filled features all about wildlife and the environment is evident. But it’s not just wild animals that Chloe’s fascinated by. Having written more than 75 articles for PetsRadar - and having her very own four-legged friend by her side - it’s no wonder that her love of dogs (and, of course, cats) has grown exponentially.  

Her website, www.chloemaywrites.com, and social media pages - @ChloeMayWrites on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter - showcase her knowledge through daily facts and trivia tidbits. For example, did you know that snails have teeth?!