Dogs tilt their heads when they are ‘confused,’ study finds

Research indicates the gesture may help them remember things.
Loukia Papadopoulos
A dog tilting his head.jpg
A dog tilting his head.


Anyone who has a dog has seen the animal tilt its head in response to a command. Research is revealing that the gesture might be in response to being confused and might even be helpful to remembering things, according to a new interview conducted by Live Science and published Saturday.

"Head tilts in dogs are a fairly known behavior, but the most surprising thing for me was that no one before us investigated it," study lead author Andrea Sommese, an ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, told Live Science

For a first study, Sommese and his colleagues analyzed 40 videos in which dog owners asked their pets to fetch them a toy by saying its name and noticed that all 40 of the dogs cocked their heads after the requests were made. 

The researchers further noticed that there were gifted dogs who could find the right toys and others who could not. In the second study, the scientists found that the gifted dogs tilted their heads 43 percent of the time during the exercise while other pooches tilted their heads in only 2 percent of the cases.

"We are not claiming that only gifted dogs tilt their heads while typical dogs never do it," Sommese said. 

"Typical dogs also do that, some more often than others, but in this specific situation, when the owner asks for a toy by its name, only the gifted dogs show a nice tilt."

Interesting and confusing

The researchers therefore concluded that dog head-tilts could be related to sounds that both interest and confuse them. 

"Dogs tilt their heads in a number of situations, but it seems that they do this only when they hear something that is very relevant to them," Sommese said. 

"It seems that this behavior is strongly associated with sound perception, and it might be something they do when they're trying to listen more closely, or maybe when they are a bit confused, just like humans do."

Finally, the researchers noted that the dogs seemed to favor tilting their heads in one particular direction, according to Live Science. Future studies will now aim to detect other sounds and experiences that trigger the gesture in the animals.

The study was published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Study abstract:

Little is known about head-tilts in dogs. Based on previous investigations on the head turning and the lateralised brain pattern of human speech processing in dogs, we hypothesised that head-tilts may be related to increased attention and could be explained by lateralised mental functions. We observed 40 dogs during object-label knowledge tests and analysed head-tilts occurring while listening to humans requesting verbally to fetch a familiar toy. Our results indicate that only dogs that had learned the name of the objects tilted their heads frequently. Besides, the side of the tilt was stable across several months and tests. Thus, we suggest a relationship between head-tilting and processing relevant, meaningful stimuli.

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