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Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

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Channel: BrainStuff - HowStuffWorks
Categories: Biology   |   Environmental   |   Science  
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Is this adorable behavior rooted in sensory necessity or purposeful gesticulation? We explore what may be the cutest research ever.

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Our question for the day is “Why do dogs tilt their heads?”, and I’ve gotta warn you: This is one of those questions where the answer is “No one knows for sure.”

But we do have some educated guesses. They tend to fall into three categories: Sight, Sound, and Psychology.

Sight is the easy one. Imagine that you have a snout. At certain angles, it would block certain parts of your vision.

We know that pooches can watch human faces and respond appropriately to expressions of emotion, like happiness or anger.

Research published over the past couple years has found that dogs systematically look at our entire faces, especially our eyes, to get a handle on our emotions.

So it makes sense that a dog would tilt its head to better see your face, and therefore determine whether treats are on the way.

But not all dogs have long muzzles. If sight were the only factor in head tilting, brachycephalic babies like pugs would never tilt.

Let’s look at Sound. Dogs’ hearing tends to be at least twice as sensitive as humans’ – we hear sound waves that occur in the range of about 20 to 20,000 vibrations per second (or Hertz).

Dogs, depending on their breed and age, can hear sounds of about 40 to 65,000 Hertz. Meaning they can detect sounds of much higher pitches from much further away.

Dogs cope with all that audio information partially by moving around their pinna: their fuzzy, scritchable outer ears. So some canines – especially those with floppy pinna covering the front of their ear openings – may tilt their heads to move their pinna and hone in on the sounds you’re making.

Furthermore, dogs have muscles that let them better process sounds in their middle ears. Those muscles just happen to be governed by part of the brainstem called the nucleus ambiguus – yeah, it's called the nucleus ambiguus - which just happens to also govern facial expressions, gaze, vocalizations, and head movements.

This could mean that dogs reflexively tilt their heads, sort of as a byproduct of trying to concentrate on a sound.

Or, as Stephen R. Lindsay says in his “Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training,” that brainstem connection could encourage head-tilting as a form of communication.

Meaning that when Buddy tilts his head, he’s trying to say that he’s paying attention to me. He sees me! He really sees me!

But, as with all studies into animal behavior, this Psychology factor is the most difficult to figure out. Some researchers suggest that dogs tilt their heads so often because they know we find it stinkin’ adorable. Specifically, because we respond with praise or other positive feedback when they tilt.

Studies have shown that dogs use social cues with humans that they don’t use with each other, like direct eye contact, to elicit positive responses. Maybe all that head tilting is just the very cutest form of emotional manipulation. .


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