Why Does My Dog Tilt His Head?

It’s so cute 🥺

dog tilting his head

Have you ever called your dog’s name and watched him perk up his ears and then do the cutest thing ever — tilt his head?

There are actually several reasons why your dog might be tilting his head (besides just keeping you entertained).

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Pedro M. Aponte, a veterinarian, professor of veterinary anatomy and physiology, and editor of Animalhackers.com, to find out why dogs tilt their heads.

Why does my dog tilt his head?

Dogs tilting their heads are super adorable, but there are actually some legitimate reasons for why they do this.

To hear better

Dogs usually tilt their heads to hear sounds when they don’t know exactly where they're coming from.

“Dogs tilt their head to position their pinnae (outer ears) in the direction of sounds,” Dr. Aponte told The Dodo. “They use the head tilting behavior to better perceive sounds coming from a 3D world.”

Dogs have ear flaps (pinnae) that either partially or completely cover their inner ears, and these ear flaps obstruct sounds entering their ears (some breeds’ outer ear stands up, so it doesn’t cover as much of the inner ear, such as a German shepherd, while others have ear flaps that cover their whole ear canal, such as a basset hound). So they move their heads to help sounds reach their ears better.

Dogs’ ear flaps also move, which is how a dog is able to perk up his ears to listen to something, like another dog barking in the distance.

“When dogs tilt their heads to perceive sounds, this helps dogs to get a spatial context of the sound and to connect this auditive information with other sounds and even other stimuli within their brain,” Dr. Aponte said. “Dogs try to collect sound waves with both ears to have an enhanced and richer hearing experience.”

So a dog will perk up his ears and tilt his head to get all the info he needs to figure out what a sound is, where it’s coming from and how far away it is.

To communicate with you

Dogs will often tilt their heads when their owners are talking to them as a way to communicate that they’re listening.

“Dogs also tilt their head in an ever-increasing reinforcement to communicate and develop empathy with their owners,” Dr. Aponte said.

Research has shown that dogs actually use facial expressions to communicate with people, and head tilting is an extension of that.

“Particularly eyes are used by dogs to communicate emotional states,” Dr. Aponte said. “Head tilting may be a way to ensure eye contact with humans and expresses focused auditive and visual attention, combined with emotions corresponding with a relaxed state.”

This is especially true for very social dogs who like hanging out with people. They may tilt their heads to try to encourage you to continue talking to them.

To see you better

Your dog may also tilt his head when you’re talking to help him understand what you’re trying to communicate.

Dogs use info like tone of voice, body language and facial expressions to figure out what their humans are saying, and to do this, they need to be able to clearly see — but their snouts might get in the way.

So tilting his head allows your dog to see you better by broadening his visual field so he can better understand what you’re saying.

Medical issues

Certain medical issues can cause your dog to tilt his head, such as an ear infection or a stroke (more on when you should be concerned below).

Do dogs tilt their heads because people like it?

Obviously people like it when their dogs tilt their heads because it’s so cute. So are humans actually unintentionally encouraging their dogs to do this?

It’s possible! When you react to a dog’s head tilt with positive attention, like cuddles, you’re reinforcing the behavior, so he may keep doing it to get the same reaction in the future.

“When dogs tilt their heads frequently upon facing humans, they may be reinforced to do so through positive feedback from them (like praise or the perception of a treat coming soon),” Dr. Aponte said.

So if you gush over your pup every time he does the head tilt, don’t be surprised if he makes it a habit!

When is head tilting a medical problem?

While head tilting every now and then is super cute, there are some times when it can actually be a problem.

If your dog’s head is tilted to one side all the time or if his head tilting is accompanied by other abnormal symptoms, it could be caused by a medical issue.

“You should be concerned when head tilting is fixed in one side of the face, when produced with no apparent external stimulus and/or when it is observed in combination with other signs — for instance, loss of balance when walking or walking in circles, changes in the proportions of the muscles in the face, sensitivity or pain when touching the ears or odd movements of the eyes,” Dr. Aponte said.

Symptoms that might indicate your pup’s dealing with a medical issue include:

  • Loss of balance
  • Circling
  • Abnormal eye movements
  • Clumsiness
  • Tremors
  • Facial paralysis
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Depression

If you think your dog’s head tilting isn’t normal, you should take him to the vet to check if there’s a medical issue causing it.

“A certified veterinarian or veterinary neurologist will try to obtain a precise diagnosis,” Dr. Aponte said. “The problem can be located in the inner ear (the site of the receptors for hearing and for detecting the position of the head or balance) or inside the brain.”

Some health problems that can cause head tilting in dogs include:

  • Ear infection
  • Ear injury
  • Brain disease
  • Stroke
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Head trauma
  • Brain or ear tumor
  • Infectious diseases that affect the brain or ear
  • Vestibular disease

Head tilting is just about the cutest thing a dog can do, and dogs often do it to try to understand us better, which is pretty cool. But if your dog seems to be tilting his head all the time, you should talk to your vet to make sure it isn’t a problem.