Q:My dog tilts his head to one side when I talk to him sometimes. Why do dogs tilt their heads? Is this normal?
A: Yes, it’s normal—he just knows you’re not a dog, and he’s trying to figure out what kind of sounds are coming out of your mouth.
You and your dog have spent enough time together that you know exactly what they’re going to do when you say certain words. If they hear the word “walk,” they’re going to tippy-tap their way toward the front door. If you mention a “treat,” they’ll set some kind of land-speed record running into the kitchen. And if you have to tell them “no”... well, they’re still working on that one.
But sometimes you might find yourself talking to them during the day—especially if you’ve had some extra time with each other during the past year—and they’ll look at you, and tilt their head to one side as if to say, “I know this might have something to do with me, but I’m not sure what it is.”
Why do dogs tilt their heads? Can they understand us? According to the experts, dogs mainly tilt their heads in response to unknown sounds and to better make out where the sounds are coming from—and because they know it’s just so darn cute. (No, seriously.)
Michael Burke, a Los Angeles-based animal communicator and behavior consultant, explains further: “Dogs learn to understand different sounds and tones as methods of communication with humans. When they hear a different tone mixed with some they are familiar with, they tilt their head as they are processing the tones and piecing them together to come to an understanding of what is being expressed.”
So basically, your dog could just be responding to a sound frequency that is decidedly... well, not a dog, and trying to determine how to respond to that.
Your dog might also be tilting their head so they can figure out not just what the sound is, but where it is.
“Dogs have amazing hearing, but they can have difficulty determining the direction where a sound has come from,” says Colleen Demling-Riley, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, CDBC, and the founder and CEO of Pawtopia Dog Training in San Diego, California. “By tilting their head, they can hear a unique sound more clearly. This is especially true for dogs with floppy ears. Ear flaps can muffle their hearing; the head tilt causes the flap to move and allows the pup to hear more clearly.”
Sometimes, she adds, a dog’s nose can get in the way when they’re trying to see what’s going on and where, so they might tilt their heads to get a better look—even if you’re standing right in front of them. If you want to see what your pup sees, she suggests trying this:
- Hold your closed fist up to your nose.
- Look at an object that is directly in front of you.
- Now tilt your head.
Better view, right?
If you’re a parent to more than one dog, or if your pup has frequent playdates with their four-legged pals, you might’ve noticed that they don’t seem to tilt their heads when they’re vocalizing with other dogs. Demling-Riley says this is because they’re “so fluent in their own language,” that they don’t have to angle their head to understand what’s happening—but you might notice your dog “tilting” if he hears the dog down the street howl.
Dogs may also tilt their heads when they hear a particularly strange-to-them sound on television, or if they hear a siren outside. “High-pitched sounds can trigger this behavior,” Burke says. “The higher the pitch, the more sensitive dogs are to it, which is why they can hear high-pitched dog whistles that humans aren’t able to hear and process.”
The head tilt may even be their way of training us. “Most dogs quickly learn that their pet parent loves the cute head tilt,” Deming-Riley says. “They realize that if they do this behavior, they get praised and prolonged interaction with their person. This positive reinforcement encourages the pup to react this way more often and, as a result, social pups tend to head tilt more frequently than those dogs that are less engaged with their pet parents.” Smart lil’ buggers!
Most of the time, heading tilting is a totally normal behavior, Deming-Riley says. But if your dog starts tilting their head more frequently, for longer durations, or when there isn’t an obvious environmental trigger that they’re responding to, then it could be worth scheduling an appointment with the vet, to ensure that your pup doesn’t have anything (like an ear infection) going on.
And if you say the word “vet” out loud, we can juuuust about guess what your dog’s going to do.