Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP
Published: October 27, 2021
Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

You know the look—it’s beloved by dog parents worldwide. The attentive expression, the upright ears, and yes, the tilted head. Generations of dogs have delighted pet parents with this look, and in many ways, we encourage them to keep doing it with our positive reactions.

But why do dogs tilt their heads in the first place? Are they showing us they’re listening? Are they trying to hear better?

Is It Normal for Dogs to Tilt Their Heads?

There are two primary reasons dogs will tilt their heads.

The first is the “classic” head-tilt we all know and love. This type of head-tilt is used by dogs as a form of communication—to improve their hearing and to let us know they are focused on and interested in what we are doing and saying. This is perfectly normal and quite common.

A less common reason for head-tilting is related to a medical problem that causes a dog to continually tilt his head, even when he’s not focused on a sound or object and making eye contact. Often, dogs that do this have additional problems, such as a loss of balance or an odor that’s indicative of infection.

If your dog is tilting their head continually and/or the head-tilt is not clearly associated with a form of communication, have your dog examined by a veterinarian.

Does Head-Tilting Help Dogs Hear Better?

For many dogs, head-tilting helps them hear better. The flaps of their ears may change the direction of sound, such as for German Shepherds whose tall ears may prevent them from clearly hearing sounds behind them.

Rotating their ears, or their entire head, can help triangulate the location of the sound so they can hear it more clearly. Other breeds, such as Cocker Spaniels, have dense, heavy earflaps that can cover the entire ear canal, muffling sounds in general. Lifting these earflaps will also help improve their hearing.

Many times, moving the earflaps and tilting the head may be so subtle that we don’t really notice it. Other times, the dog may choose to exaggerate the motion. And some dogs may choose to tilt their heads more than others.

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Head When We Talk to Them?

Many dogs will tilt their heads when they are directly facing us. In part, this may be mechanical—their long noses just get in the way of them being able to see us. This is why some of the shorter-nosed breeds (like Bulldogs) are less likely to tilt their heads as much as the longer-nosed dogs, like Retrievers.

Dog head-tilts are also endearing, and most people find it hard not to smile or laugh when a dog makes eye contact. Smiling when a dog looks at you and tilts their head encourages the behavior and teaches them to repeat it.

Sometimes, dogs tilt their heads to help tip their ears in the direction of your voice, which allows them to focus more clearly on what you’ve said. Once they’ve tipped their head up, they get an unobstructed view of your facial expressions and can more clearly hear your words.

Why Do Certain Sounds Make Dogs' Heads Tilt?

 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.

Just like us, it takes something interesting to get a dog to perk up their ears. You’re much more likely to pay attention to the sound of someone walking around your house at night than a car driving by during the afternoon. Sounds associated with food, toys, or something fun are much more likely to get your dog to tilt their head than more routine sounds.

When Is a Dog Head-Tilt a Sign of a Problem?

Although most tilts are of the communication variety, some dogs will develop medically induced head-tilts. Generally, these tilts don’t “look cute,” and the dog’s head stays tilted for a long period of time (vs. the few seconds of a normal head-tilt).

Very commonly, you will notice additional signs that concern you—your dog may be off balance, fall easily, or have symptoms of an ear infection. If your dog is doing a head-tilt that appears to be anything more significant than a form of communication, take them to a veterinarian right away.

Featured Image: iStock.com/John Marshall

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