Scientific study explains why dogs tilt their heads to one side

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19th March 2023 – (Budapest) A new scientific study has shed light on why dogs tilt their heads to one side, a behaviour widely considered to be one of the most endearing sights in the animal kingdom. The study, led by postdoctoral fellow at the Family Dog Project Andrea Sommese, found that dogs tilt their heads when they hear something that is very relevant to them. The research suggests a strong association between head-tilting and sound perception, with dogs using the behaviour to listen more closely or to alleviate confusion.

The study, which was published in two parts, is based on observations of 40 dogs during an ‘object-label knowledge test’. In the first study, titled ‘Word learning dogs (Canis familiaris) provide an animal model for studying exceptional performance’ and published on 7 July, 2021 in Scientific Reports, scientists sought to test whether dogs process sensory information asymmetrically, like several other vertebrates. The second study, titled ‘An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs’, was published on 26 October, 2021.

Of the 40 dogs observed, 33 were considered to be ‘normal’ family dogs and seven were ‘gifted’ dogs, already skilled in learning object names. The test involved training the dogs to fetch a particular toy with a specific name attached to it. Prior to the test, the researchers expected that if head-tilting was related to processing meaningful or relevant auditory stimuli, dogs that learned object labels would tilt their heads more frequently upon hearing the toy’s name than typical dogs.

The test results revealed that the ‘gifted’ dogs tilted their heads significantly more than the ‘normal’ dogs and were able to learn more than 10 names of different toys in just three months. In contrast, the ‘normal’ dogs were not able to learn the name of any new toys during the same period. However, all dogs cocked their heads at some point during the tests.

H2: Dogs tilt their heads to listen more closely or alleviate confusion

The Animal Cognition study found that when dogs were asked to retrieve a toy by name, the ‘gifted’ dogs tilted their heads 43% of the time compared to just 2% of the ‘normal’ dogs. The study also showed that dogs had a preferred side to tilt their heads to, but this differed from dog to dog, much like how humans use a particular hand to write with.

The final results of the study suggested a relationship between head-tilting and processing relevant, meaningful stimuli. The researchers hope to look further into how head-tilting may be impacted by different contexts or other sounds.

Monique Udell, a human-animal interaction researcher at Oregon State University who was not involved in the studies, commented on the importance of the research, stating that “studies like this one are important because they remind us that we, as humans, also have a lot to learn about what a dog’s body language is communicating to us.”