How can anyone not find dogs adorable with their heads cocked to the side and big, wide, puppy eyes? But why do dogs do this?

Why Might Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

There are various theories as to why dogs display this behavior. One thing is for certain though, the more we respond to it with positive reinforcement, the more likely dogs will do it in search of praise. It is hard to resist the adorable expression, and most pet parents will respond with physical affection or verbal attention. 

Dogs are clever and will learn which behaviors are more likely to result in praise, attention, or whatever they are seeking (like licking!). But why did dogs tilt their heads, to begin with?

Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads to Improve Their Hearing? 

Dogs can hear a wider range of sound frequencies than humans and at a much higher pitch. However, despite this impressive skill, humans are better at actually locating the source of a sound. One theory is that dogs tilt their heads to alter the position of their ears and help determine from where the sound is coming. Adjusting the pinnae, or outer ear, may better pinpoint the location of a noise. 

However, many dogs seem to display this behavior when we are looking right at them. It is possible that your canine companion may just be listening to you and really interested in what you have to say. Dogs are good at responding to vocal cues, so they may be listening for specific words. This is beneficial for our canine friends when we are talking to them, as responding to those specific words is likely to result in praise, affection, or food. No wonder they are interested in what we have to say! 

Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads to Improve Vision? 

Dogs understand us not only by what we say but how we say it. They are attentive to facial expressions, eye movement, and body language. Tilting their heads may improve their vision and allow more of this important information to be detected. That cute head tilt may actually broaden your dog’s field of vision and allow them to see a person’s face more clearly, therefore improving communication for them. The shape of your dog’s head and face may also be a factor. 

Dogs with a long muzzle and nose may need to adjust the position of their head to ensure something directly in front of them is in full focus. Similarly, dogs with flatter faces often have eyes that are slightly set apart and they may need to tilt their heads to get a better view. 

When Should I Worry About My Dog’s Head-Tilting? 

A persistent head tilt (that is not associated with communication or noise) may be a sign of an underlying medical problem. 

Infections of the outer or middle ear may cause a prolonged head tilt. This may also be accompanied by irritation of the ear causing scratching or rubbing, redness, discharge, or a foul smell from the ear. 

Neurological problems, such as vestibular disease, that affect the nerves around the middle ear or those that control balance in the body may also result in a continual head tilt. 

If your dog is showing a permanent or semi-permanent head tilt, seek veterinary advice. 

What Should I Expect if I Take My Dog to the Vet for a Head Tilt?

A Veterinary Surgeon will be able to examine your dog’s ears by looking into them with an instrument called an otoscope. This allows your vet to look for signs of inflammation, infection, or problems with the eardrum. Your vet may also examine your dog’s head and mouth for signs of pain or discomfort. Your vet may perform a neurological examination to assess the nerves around your dog’s head and ears. This may involve shining a light in his or her eyes, touching the face to test reflexes, and feeling along the neck and spine. They may assess your dog’s movement and test reflexes in their legs and paws to screen for balance problems or vestibular disease.  

Final Thoughts

There are several factors that may result in the doggy head tilt, and it is human nature to respond to this behavior with positive reinforcement. So, the main reason dogs cock their heads to the side is because we inadvertently teach them to do it by rewarding them. 

Social dogs that enjoy human connection often tilt their heads more to encourage the continuation of the interaction and prolong the human contact. Our response to the head tilt encourages repetition, and means we keep getting to enjoy the cuteness!