Dog tilting its head

You know the look: Your dog is staring at you, eyes bright with curiosity, ears pricked. And of course, the pup’s head tilts slightly to the side in response to the sound of your voice.

It’s just one of the many delightful quirks that dogs possess. and a quick Google search will offer many theories about his adorable head-tilting behavior. For example, some veterinarians suggest that dogs tilt their heads toward their owners to show they are committed and prolong the interaction, similar to how we humans nod during a conversation to show that we are listening.

But surprisingly little research has investigated the reasons behind this. TO recent studyhowever, it can offer some clues and suggests that the head tilt could be a sign that your canine companion is trying to understand you better.

Studying head tilt in dogs

Researchers have discovered that many animals (fish, reptiles, birds, mammals, and even humans) process sensory information asymmetrically, which means they use the left or right side of their brain. Other studies show that dogs also display this asymmetry, often wagging tail to one side or smell with one nostril over the other.

But when it comes to head tilting in dogs, the scientific literature is much more sparse. “It’s a very common behavior in dogs,” says Andrea Sommesse, an animal behavior researcher at Hungary’s Eötvös Loránd University. “There are a lot of anecdotes and stories and all that, but there was no scientific publication on this.”

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That is, until Sommese and his colleagues discovered that “gifted” dogs—that is, those who could memorize the names of several different toys—would frequently tilt their heads to the side before correctly searching for a specific toy. The team published their results In the diary animal cognition at the end of 2021.

an unexpected discovery

Sommese says the find was a surprise; scientists stumbled across it while conducting a small study of dogs gifted with “word learning.” While most dogs have a hard time learning the names of even two toys, these seven special pups can remember and recall at least 10 different toys, by name, after learning them from researchers.

What’s more, the team found that pups who liked to play fetch cocked their heads after being asked for a command (“get the rope!”) more often than their less-skilled peers. That’s when Sommese and his colleagues decided to dig deeper.

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“We all realized this,” he adds. “So we started talking about it, because it was getting more and more consistent. And then we decided to analyze it.”

Why do dogs tilt their heads?

In the 2021 study, which took place over several months, the scientists compared the retrieval abilities of the seven “gifted” dogs, all of them border collies, with those of 33 “typical” dogs. Sommese says they designed the experiment with the dogs in one room and the toys in another.

Nalani, one of the gifted “word-learning” dogs featured in the study, sits on top of a treasure trove of toys. (Credit: Sonja De Laat Spierings)

“So [the dogs] I don’t really see the toys,” he continues. “And when the owner asks for a toy by his name, [the dog] listen to the word, the stimulus, and they say, ‘Okay, let me think about this. What is it?’ And then they go looking for it.”

The study authors found that when prompted for a command from their owner, gifted dogs cocked their heads 43 percent of the time, compared with just 2 percent for typical dogs. Thus, head tilt could be a sign of mental processing – meaning the pups are likely paying attention or even matching the toy’s name to a visual memory of it in their head.

“[The head tilt] it is a way of thinking about something”, adds Sommese. “To get what we call a ‘mental representation’ of the item or toy.”

Other reasons why dogs turn their heads

Monique Udell, an animal behaviorist who studies human-animal interactions at Oregon State University, points out that there could be other explanations for head-tilting behavior beyond concentration and recall.

“Maybe it helps them see better or hear better, and get a different perspective,” says Udell. “Many species will move their heads or bodies in response to important stimuli in order to get a better idea of ​​what that thing is.”

In the future, he hopes scientists will investigate whether different breeds of dogs also tilt their heads in response to other factors in their environment.

“Maybe another dog howling, or the sound of a prey animal if it’s a hunting dog,” says Udell. “I would be interested to know if head tilt is really specific to these types of stimuli, or if we can understand if head tilt in different dogs corresponds to different stimuli that are important to them.”

Sommese says she’d like to continue her study by looking at populations of non-gifted dogs to see if hearing familiar words triggers the same response. And while research into the connection between canine cognition and head tilt is still in its early stages, for now, the next time your pup tilts his head, you can probably chalk it up to an adorable attempt to process what you’re doing. saying.

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