Dogs do a lot of cute things, but perhaps none is as reliably cute as the head tilt. All you have to do to get a dog to cock its head in that adorably inquisitive way is to make a weird sound or say a favorite word (like “treat” or “ride”). They seem to do it whenever they’re confused, curious, or just really interested in what they’re hearing.
Why do dogs do this? The answer isn’t clear. Here are three of the leading possibilities.
1. They’re trying to hear better
If you’ve ever seen a terrier hunting a rodent underground or in the wall of a house, you’ve probably noticed that they turn their heads from side to side in an apparent attempt to pinpoint the varmint’s hiding spot (dogs with pointy ears can also rotate their ears independently of each other to get sound from different directions). This instinct to triangulate the location of prey might carry over into other cases where the dog is intensely focused on what it is hearing. Besides revealing where the sound is coming from, listening from slightly different angles could provide other information as well.
2. They’re communicating
Head tilting could fall into the realm of doggy body language. That is, there could be a practical reason for why they do it, but a second purpose might be to communicate with humans and/or other dogs. By cocking its head, the dog might be sending a signal such as: “Yes, I heard you and I’m interested in what you have to say. I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.” Or something.
3. We train them to do it
Dog Training 101 teaches us that dogs tend to repeat behaviors that are positively reinforced. Because we find head tilting so charming, we reward the dog for doing it with extra food and attention. Think about it this way. You say the word “treat.” If Fido tilts his head, you give him the treat right away. Otherwise, you repeat the word until Fido gives you the reaction you’re looking for. From Fido’s point of view, tilting his head when you say the magic word leads to a reward.
One or even all of these reasons could explain why dogs tilt their heads. A fourth possibile reason for canine head tilting is a medical problem such as vestibular disease that causes the dog to have trouble balancing. However, it’s generally pretty obvious when this is the case because the tilting isn’t in response to the usual stimuli (sounds). If you have any doubts about whether your dog’s head tilting is the cute type or the concerning type, see your vet post-haste.
The next question is, why do humans find doggy head tilting so adorable? The answer is, most likely, that head tilting is also part of the human body language lexicon. People also subconsciously tilt their heads when confused or pondering a difficult problem. It’s also observed in people who are flirting or otherwise interested, engaged, or intrigued. Thus, we probably find head tilting in dogs so amusing because we recognize it as human behavior.
That’s not to say that humans and dogs tilt their heads for the same reason, however. This could be another example (one of many) where people interpret canine behavior through a human lens.