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Dog tilting head

The essentials

  • Researchers aren’t sure why dogs tilt their heads — Leading theories are that it may be behavioral, or for more practical purposes.
  • It may indicate something more serious — Certain medical issues, like an infection or neurological problems, can be the cause of a dog tilting their head.
  • Some breeds may do it more than others — Certain breeds, like those with  longer snouts, may tilt their head more out of necessity than other breeds.

It’s one of the cutest things our pups do: tilting their head as they look at you. But why do dogs tilt their heads?

While no one is 100% sure why dogs do this, the popular theory is that they’re communicating interest and engagement. Dogs are social animals so, similar to how humans nod during conversation, head tilting is meant to encourage more interaction. Much like people, a lot of communication occurs with a dog’s body language.

Understanding dog communication 

Like people, dogs communicate through more than just sound – and head tilting is one such way of communication.

How dogs use body language to convey information

Humans primarily use words to communicate, but a significant portion of our communication is non-verbal, and the same applies to dogs. When observing dogs, it’s important to pay attention to the whole animal. For example, a wagging tail doesn’t always signify a happy pup. It’s important to pay attention to posture, ears, and overall behavior to really figure out what they’re trying to say.

Auditory signals in canine communication

Barking is the most recognizable way that dogs communicate, but even compared to their closest relative, the wolf, they have numerous verbal cues they use to communicate feelings and needs to their owners.

4 popular theories for why dogs tilt their heads 

While little is known about why dogs tilt their heads , there are some popular theories. From practical reasons to simply eliciting an adoring “aww” from their owners, here are the four most popular theories.

1. Amplifying sound

Because many dog breeds have ear flaps that can obstruct hearing, dogs will sometimes perk up their ears and tilt their head to improve their hearing, or move and tilt their head to better hear interesting sounds (like the treat bag!)

👉 If you notice other issues, like hearing loss or stinky ears, it can be signs of a ruptured eardrum or ear polyps. Make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. 

2. Improving vision

Dogs with longer snouts and certain head shapes may need to tilt their head to see you better. For example, a German shepherd has a longer snout, making it necessary for them to tilt their head in order to get a better view of an object or person. Dogs with a shorter snout, like a French bulldog, may not need to.

To get an idea of what your dog sees, hold a medicine bottle up to your nose with the lid facing you, and focus your eyes (and the bottom of the bottle) on an object across the room. You’ll likely have to tilt your head to see it. Now, try it with just the lid of the bottle.

3. Expressing empathy

Research has shown that dogs are more like humans than any other species. It’s possible that this is partly due to the long history that dogs have had with humanity, but whether it’s because of their shared history with people or scientific similarities, scientists believe that dogs can pick up on human emotions and respond to them better than any other animal.

4. Learned behavior for positive encouragement

The reasons behind your dog’s adorable head tilt are still unclear, but one popular theory is that dogs do it to please us. Positive reinforcement training is a proven way to train your dog without traumatizing them, so it’s possible that dogs tilt their head for an outcome they like — making you happy.

While the reasons behind why dogs tilt their heads isn’t entirely understood, one fact remains: it’s an adorable behavior that owners love. Research is ongoing into this behavior, along with the numerous other things that are a part of your dog’s body language.

Frequently asked questions

Are dogs that tilt their head smart?

Research indicates that dogs who are more responsive to commands and learn faster (i.e. smarter dogs) tilt their heads more often than other dog breeds.

Why is my dog acting weird tilting his head?

Dogs experiencing a dysfunction in their vestibular system may tilt their head more often and exhibit other symptoms, like being unsteady on their feet or wobbly. These symptoms may indicate a more serious condition.

Why do dogs tilt their heads and wag their tails?

Dogs may tilt their heads to hear better, or to have a better view of something. Or, it may be a sign that you have their full, and excited, attention. The reasons behind why dogs tilt their heads isn’t fully understood.

Is head-tilting behavior observed in all dog breeds or is it more common in some breeds than others?

Head-tilting behavior is observed across all dog breeds, but it is speculated to be more common in breeds with flatter faces and larger ears, as it may assist them in localizing sounds better. However, more comprehensive studies are needed to confirm this theory.