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Why do dogs tilt their heads?

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A German shorthaired pointer is pictured tilting its head. Photo by Kev Costello on Unsplash

A German shorthaired pointer is pictured tilting its head.

Photo by Kev Costello via Unsplash

We have all witnessed it — the quintessential head turn, usually accompanied with raised or furrowed “eyebrows” and on-alert ears. When speaking to your dog, the vocabulary may not be robust, but your canine friend can certainly pick up on key words.

As many of us know, plenty of dogs catch on to verbal communications when they hear certain words or phrases, like walk, car or treat. Or perhaps — like my furry friend — they perk up on simple syllables or cadences. All it takes with my dog is a simple “do,” and she knows that either a treat or a walk are imminent.

Regardless of what language catches your best friend’s attention, their reaction is almost always the same when it does — the head tilt. To us inferring humans, we might interpret their body language as them trying to understand what we are saying to them.

So what’s actually going on in your furry friend’s head when they tilt their adorable heads from side to side? BBC’s Science Focus magazine reported that according to research, “dogs tilt their head when they process something meaningful, or when they expect to be told something important.”

Insider explored other theories behind dogs’ head tilts, such as a dog’s attempt to see better or listen more attentively — or perhaps, our furry friends may even recognize the positive reactions we humans have to the behavior. “What likely occurs here is that when a dog tilts its head, people respond with verbal praise or pets, so the dog learns to tilt its head more frequently and may do this as a way to seek out attention,” said Erin Askeland, a certified dog behavior consultant and animal health and behavior expert.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, although little research has been conducted on what triggers dogs’ head tilts, some studies have revealed key findings on the behavior. A study published in Animal Cognition discovered a potential connection between dogs’ head tilts and their memory recall. Also, researchers on the study found that “dogs usually cock their head in the same direction regardless of where the owner was standing,” Smithsonian Magazine reported.

Monique Udell, a researcher at Oregon State University studying human-animal interaction, told Science that when it comes to research on the canine behavior, “the next step is asking more questions to get at what the head tilt really means,” Udell said. “Can we use head tilting to predict word-learning aptitude, or attention, or memory?”

For the time being, until further research can definitively explain what is behind dogs’ endearing head tilts, dog owners can continue to rest easy assuming that our loyal pets are making an adorable effort to understand what we’re saying to them.