You whisper a few favorite words like “treat” or “walk” and your canine friend responds with an irresistible head tilt that makes you gush. Why? Our dogs know us well. They’ve memorized our expressions, body language and even our vocabulary. Some even claim their dogs know what they’re thinking before they do. So naturally it’s speculated that the tilt is either used to hear us more clearly or as a social cue where they continue to repeat the desired action because of the reward of positive attention. But recent research suggests that this behavior could simply be a way to see us better.
Popular author and professor of psychology, Stanley Coren, hypothesized that dogs tilt their heads in response to our chatter because their muzzles obscure their vision, and therefore, their ability to read our face. It’s the lower region of our face that’s blocked, including the mouth, which plays a major role in displaying our emotional expressions. If dogs are relying on our face to tell the whole story, it’s likely they’ve adjusted their positioning by tilting their head to one side or the other.
Coren surveyed pet owners about their dog’s tendency to tilt based on the idea that dogs with flatter faces, brachycephalic breeds like Pugs or Bulldogs, were less likely to tilt their heads since they have shorter snouts. Breed information was also collected and for owners of mixed breeds, they were asked to approximate the length of their dog’s snout by choosing from a series of photos.
Of the pet owners surveyed, 62% reported that their dogs often tilt their heads when spoken to. From those, 53% were owners of brachycephalic breeds and 71% were owners of dogs with longer snouts. This difference suggests that snout size may contribute to our dog’s endearing head tilt. Of course, this survey just scratches the surface on the origin of this quirky canine position we all love so much. But it’s definitely an interesting insight into how man’s best friend has learned to communicate in our world.
Read Coren’s full article in Psychology Today’s Canine Corner.