Why DO dogs tilt their heads – and is it really a sign of confusion?


Why DO dogs tilt their heads – and is it really a sign of confusion?

Dogs rarely look cuter than when they’re titling their heads to the side and looking at you quizzically. 

But while they may appear confused, a recent study suggests the expression could actually be a sign of intelligence.

Researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary found the head shift is a canine’s way of processing the meaning of words and making connections.

The study analyzed the behavior of 40 dogs as their owners asked them to fetch a specific toy by saying its name.

Approximately 33 of the pets were unable to learn the names of toys, but seven did –  and tilted their heads when they heard their owners call it out.

Six of those ‘gifted dogs’ were Border collies, regarded as one of the most intelligent breeds in the world.

‘Often owners observe dogs tilting their heads and we still do not have a full understanding of the function and circumstances in which this behavior happens,’ the researchers said in a statement.

‘However, this study is the first step in this direction showing how this behavior could be related to the presence of meaningful and salient auditory stimuli for the dog.’

The tilting of the head is known as an asymmetrical behavior, which is also found among humans, typically during a time of thinking or hearing a noise.

However, dogs’ tail wagging, nostril sniffing, and paw preference are also asymmetrical behaviors.

Lead author Dr Andrea Sommese said: ‘Tilting the head is yet another asymmetrical movement in dogs, but it had never been studied.

‘We investigated the frequency and direction of this behavior in response to a specific human verbal vocalization: when the owner asks the dog to bring a toy by saying its name.

Researchers found the head shift is a canine's way of processing the meaning of words and making connections

Researchers found the head shift is a canine’s way of processing the meaning of words and making connections

Which breeds of dog are the smartest? 

WebMD reports that the following are the most naturally intelligent dog breeds:

  1. Border Collie
  2. Poodle
  3. German Shepherd
  4. Golden Retriever
  5. Doberman Pinscher
  6. Shetland Sheepdog
  7. Labrador Retriever
  8. Papillon
  9. Rottweiler
  10. Australian Cattle Dog 

‘We did so after realizing that it often happened when the dogs were listening to their owners.’

The study involved three months of training for the dogs, to familiarize them with specific names of toys.

The ‘gifted dogs’ tilted their heads 43 percent of the time when their owners called out toy names, while the average pets only shifted two percent of the time. 

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‘We are not claiming that only gifted dogs tilt their heads while typical dogs never do it,’ Sommese told Live Science

‘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.’ 

These findings sparked a second investigation that only observed the head tilts.

The subsequent experiments, which spanned over 24 months, confirmed that dogs seem to have a preferred side to move their head. 

Shany Dror, co-author of the study, said: ‘It seems that there is a relationship between success in retrieving a named toy and frequent head tilts upon hearing its name.

”That is why we suggest an association between head-tilting and processing relevant and meaningful stimuli.’ 


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