Why do dogs tilt their heads?

Why do dogs tilt their heads?

Does your dog tilt his head when you talk to him? Here’s why. 

Many people report that when they talk to their beloved canines, the dogs tilt their heads to the side in a most endearing manner. Why do they do this? Some people suggest it’s so one ear can hear us more clearly. Others believe it’s learned behaviour – many people tend to reward their dogs when they adopt this posture because it’s so cute.

I suspect the real reason dogs tilt their heads has something to do with vision. They are simply trying to see around their prominent muzzles.

Try the following simple experiment:

  1. Hold your fist up to your nose as shown in the picture. Now, in effect, you are viewing the world with a head shape of a dog, complete with muzzle. Look at a person’s face and you will find that the “muzzle” obstructs some of your vision. In particular, it reduces your ability to see the lower part of the face — especially the mouth, which plays a vital role in human emotional expressions.
  2. Next, still with your “muzzle” in place, tilt your head as you look at the face. With this head posture you can now clearly see the mouth region.

In the absence of any research, I decided to collect some data to see if it supported my hypothesis.

I conducted a brief Internet survey to gather information. People simply had to answer how often their dogs tilted their heads when they were speaking to them, on a scale running from “never” to “almost always”.

Data was also gathered on the dog’s breed or head shape. Some dogs – technically known as breeds with brachycephalic heads — have flatter faces. These include dogs like Pugs and Pekingese. A less pronounced muzzle should mean less visual obstruction, so these dogs would not need to tilt their heads as much to see the lower part of a human’s face.

What the research showed

Of the 582 people surveyed, 62% reported that their dogs “frequently” to “always” tilt their heads when they speak to them. When the 186 dogs with flatter brachycephalic heads were compared to those with more pronounced muzzles, we found that 71% of people with larger-muzzled breeds reported that their dogs frequently tilt their heads when spoken to, compared to only 52% of people with flatter-faced dogs. This is a statistically significant difference that clearly suggests that head shape and muzzle size does indeed influence head tilting in dogs.

Now, of course, 52% flat faced dogs tilting their heads is still a large number, and it may be that even flatter muzzles obscure a dog’s vision to some degree — or more likely, that some other factor also contributes to this behaviour in all dogs. But at least we now have a clue to help explain this common pose!

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Stanley Coren is professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is also an award winning behavioural researcher, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and was named as one of the 2,000 outstanding scientists of the 20th century. His many books on dog behaviour and human-canine interactions have been international bestsellers. His awards include the prestigious Maxwell Medal of Excellence from The Dog Writers Association of America for his book Born to Bark. Coren has been featured on Oprah, Larry King, and can be heard broadcasting a radio column on CBC. His newest book is Do Dogs Dream.