It is a phenomenon that virtually all dog owners will recognise—you say something to your dog or do something that catches your dog’s attention, and your dog tilts his head when looking at you in a kind of ‘huh?’ expression!
Because this behaviour is so common in dogs, it is something that most of us recognise and don’t really pay much attention to. Unlike some of the other forms of canine body language that can be harder to interpret, the head-tilt gesture seems to be fairly obvious in meaning—it shows that your dog is paying attention or interested in what you are saying. But what is the real reason behind it, and why do dogs tilt their heads when they are interested in what you are saying? Read on to find out!
Tilting the head to one side places one of the dog’s ears higher on their heads than the other, and for dogs with floppy ears, it helps to open up the ear canal so that they can hear better.
Dogs are used to the constant presence of human speech, and they quickly learn to assess people’s tone of voice, along with their body language and general demeanour. However, when dogs listen to humans, they essentially hear a stream of babble, interspersed with the odd word that stands out and that they are familiar with, such as ‘walkies’ or ‘treat.’ If your dog picks up one of these trigger words whilst you are talking, they might tilt their head to hear more clearly and try to pick through the background babble to find out more about what you are talking about.
The effect is similar to listening to people speaking in a foreign language and suddenly speaking a clear English word in the middle of the stream, such as ‘internet’ or ‘hospital.’ These words are things that English speakers can understand and that sound incongruous amongst another language to our ears, so it makes you pause and look.
You will likely see your dog tilt their head if you make a strange noise that they do not usually hear and that catches their attention, particularly if the sound is high-pitched.
Dog’s ears come in all shapes and sizes, from the large pointed ears of breeds like the German shepherd to floppy or flat ears that are close to the head such as the Dogue de Bordeaux. Dogs with pointed ears can move the position of their ears to better act as a funnel for sound, flicking their ears back and forwards to ‘tune in,’ whilst dogs with floppy ears have more trouble doing this as their ears droop down.
Tilting the head can help dogs with either type of ears to hone in on the direction of a sound, like when they have wandered far from you on a walk and they can hear you calling them back but they are not sure where you are.
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