Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Sometimes dogs look at their owners attentively while tilting their
heads and appear to absorb every word.

Of all the cute things dogs do, cocking their head to one side while they look at you may be the most endearing. Yet surprisingly little research has looked into why they do it. It’s hard to resist the cuteness of a dog tilting its head when you talk to them or when they hear a strange sound.

Perhaps head tilting, by altering the position of the ears, helps dogs better determine where a sound is coming from. Despite being able to hear an incredible range of frequencies, dogs can’t locate the source of a sound as well as humans can. However, like us, when a dog hears something, his brain can tell the difference between how long it took the sound to reach the ear farthest from the sound compared to the ear that’s closest. That difference can help localize the sound. It may seem at times like your dog is hanging on your every word when they tilt their head, and there’s some evidence to indicate this may be the case.

A small 2021 study found that dogs were likelier to tilt their heads in response to a word they knew well. As part of the study, researchers asked dogs to fetch a specific toy from another room.

They found that dogs who brought the correct toy tilted their heads when listening to the command. A dog’s anatomy can make hearing difficult, especially for specific breeds like cocker spaniels or basset hounds with heavy ear flaps that cover the ear canal.

By tilting its head, a dog can open one of their ear flaps to determine better the direction of a sound and how far away it may be. It is possible that dogs with long noses may lose sight of our lips as we speak. Tilting the head will improve their view of our mouths. A study showed that flat-nosed dogs tilted their heads about 25% less of the time. Certain sounds, especially ones that intrigue or puzzle them, will be more likely to make a dog tilt their head.

If they are really interested in the sound and aren’t quite sure where it’s coming from, they will tilt their head to try to localize the sound, find its source, and obtain more information about it. Sounds associated with food, toys, or fun are much more likely to get your dog to tilt their head than more routine sounds. New research, published in the Animal Cognition journal, suggests that dogs tilt their head when they process something meaningful or expect to be told something important.

We know that dogs continually scan our faces for information and to read our emotional state. Hence it is likely that one reason why dogs may tilt their heads when we talk to them is because they want to see our faces better, to compensate for the way in which their muzzles obscure part of their vision.

Stanley Coren, PhD., professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia

There’s a high chance that when your dog tilts their head, this loveable behavior will be met with positive encouragement such as a cutesy voice, a fuss, and possibly even a snack too. This means your dog essentially discovers that tilting its head wins them affection. Our canine friends are people-pleasers after all, and once they’ve learned you like something, they’re more likely to keep doing it! If you’re standing in front of your dog and they are tilting their head in response to a noise you’re making, it’s likely they are simply focusing on you and trying to understand you. Which makes it all the more endearing, and worthy of praise.

There are some studies suggesting that tilting the head could be a health-related problem. But it didn’t seem likely, because we saw dogs doing it randomly and I’m pretty sure you’ve seen a dog tilting its head – it’s very common behaviour!

Dr Andrea Sommese, lead author and researcher at Eötvös Loránd University

Further Reading


American Kennel Club
BBC Science Focus
VCA Animal Hospital
The Farmers Dog Digest

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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