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The dog head tilt. Reasons they do it, and why we encourage it.

head tilt dogs tilly and Ted

Many times humans like to anthropomorphize our dogs or simplify their behaviours into simple coda, anything that seem logical. But some seemingly simple dog behaviours can have some complex origins. It turns out that the simple tilt of a dogs head can be caused by MANY things, including things that need medical intervention.

If in doubt, we can almost trace any domesticated dog behaviour back to their ancestors, the grey wolf. Much of it is based on survival, or hunting. But our domestic dog has also added a layer of pleasing us on top of these ancient behaviors that make some of their actions a little grey, or diversified to say the least.

The main reason for dogs tilting their heads is to improve communications. It is mostly to adjust the position of their ear canals so they can better hear, AND locate a sound.  They typically do this when their owner is saying something that is obviously directed at the dog (it could be to do with food or a walk) – or a dog hears something unusual that either needs investigation or a flight response.

The second main reason for a dog head tilt is medical.

It can be to do with a balance issue or an ear infection or even a brain issue. If a dog head tilts for prolonged periods (not directed at a sound), or shakes their head – its best to consult your vet to find out what is troubling them.

How your dog Head-Tilting helps them Hear Better

Very little that your dog does is by accident, or for our entertainments sake (even though in this case that can be the third major reason – more on that later).

The head tilt comes down to the differences between our human head structure and hearing, and how the domestic dogs EAR flaps developed.

IT is said, that the ear flap shape and whether rigid or hanging dramatically change the DIRECTION of sound. The more ancient the dog breed, the more likely it will have ears like the wolf.

The German shepherd is also usually quoted in dog head tilt articles for having these kinds of stand up ears that are great at funneling forward sounds into the ear canal, like parabolic dishes. However this has the major disadvantage of blocking sounds from the rear. This is why a German shepherd and other dogs with similar ears either have to move their heads or ears a lot, swiveling around to get closer to a 360 degree survey of the sound scape.

The point of such breeds I tilting their heads (especially when the sound is in front of them and there is no need to swivel their ears or entire head) is to TRIANGULATE the sound. That is minor differences in the time it takes for a single point source of sound to reach each ear can not only help locate the exact direction of the sound, but potentially assist in locating how FAR AWAY the sound, prey or predator are located.  A very useful survival tool.

The next breed regularly cited in dog head tilt articles is the cocker spaniel. Poodles also have a floppy ear to some extent, but since a spoodle (my dog Archie) is composed of these two breeds he is also an excellent proponent of the head tilt.

This kind of breed dog (ie with heavy floppy ears) has ANOTHER reason also to do with hearing for the tilt. Unlike dogs with tall rigid ears, cocker spaniels (and spoodles etc) were selectively bred to have heavy floppy ears to protect the ear canal when swimming in lakes and swamps when retrieving downed birds. But this means that sound tends to be muffled in ALL directions for these breeds.

This means that not only are cocker spaniels tilting their head to better ascertain the direction of the sound, but the tilt opens up a gap between the side of their head and the ear flap, allowing a lot more sound in so they can actually work out what it is.

The other dog breed, head tilt needs

head tilt dog Abi Pharaoh hound And here in lies another surprise about why dogs such as the pug (with neither big stand up ears, or heavy ear flaps tilt their heads.

Sometimes its also to do with the generic dog head shape (long nose).

“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.“  ref 1

Given the information so far, it might sound that dogs are just adjusting their heads to increase the best chance of hearing the sound, and locating the direction – very important for hunting or recall – but what about the FUN stuff for us humans, what we live for – you know, when it actually is ALL about us?

The dog head tilt, WE encouraged

Being the smart animals, the people pleasers, that domestic dogs most are – some really know how to ingratiate themselves with us, better than their peers. If winning is survival, if winning means more and better treats – why not really value add to the human experience, so that the dog is first to mind, always.

“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.“  ref 1

So if a dog tilts its head because it cant quite hear or understand what we have said – we might just be encouraged to repeat the command. Or it might just be so damn cute, that we reward them with a pat, a look or a healthy dog treat.  It’s a win-win, right ?

It is thought that the more social a dog, the more it wants to show you that it is fully engaged with what you are saying, literally hanging off every word. Concentration gets the biscuit, gets the love, increases the bond. An increase eye contact and increased smile might even mean a walk or something else good comes their way.

The head tilt also ensures that while the muzzle is out of the way, that they can capture every nuance of our face, and give context to the words they are hearing. Research has suggested that dogs supplement many of these visual cues of our faces to increase their understanding of our intent.


Unless it’s a medical condition – which most owners will understand the difference between that, and being cute or intently listening – the dog head tilt is all positive.

An engaged dog is also more likely to obey commands (in training and for general recall) – if they are that connected to us, just because of our voice and words, and we give positive feedback with a smile, that head tilt may persist for many years.

Just another joyful thing that the wonderous dogs give us !


Ref 1   Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?  By Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP.  Published: October 27, 2021  petmd .com/dog/behavior/why-do-dogs-tilt-their-heads

Ref 2  Why Dogs Tilt Their Heads.  By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM  vcahospitals .com/know-your-pet/why-dogs-tilt-their-heads

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