Uncovering the Adorable Reasons Dogs Tilt Their Heads

Your dog is probably tilting their head to hear better, to show they are listening to you, or possibly even because they have an ear problem.

Published March 5, 2023
Dog in a garden tilting his head

You've seen your dog make some hilarious expressions, but none of these are quite as adorable as the head tilt. But there's more to this adorable look than you might think. The most common reason why dogs tilt their heads is to listen more closely to a sound, such as a doorbell or the barking of other dogs. They may also tilt their heads when they want you to pay attention to them, or when they are confused about something. In rare case, the classic head tilt might actually signal your dog has a health issue.

1. Head Tilts for Hearing

Dogs have an amazing sense of hearing. They can even hear sounds that are too high pitched for humans to hear! But there is one thing that dogs do to hone their hearing abilities even more: they tilt their heads.

Dogs hear really well, but they are often unable to determine the direction a sound is coming from. Humans have a really good ability to hear noises no matter what direction they come from. Dogs can hear more than we do, but because of their ear shape and ear flaps, they don't have the same ability to hear noises from every direction as easily as we do.

To determine the source of the sound, they may tilt their heads to get the full range of sound. How they tilt their head can tell you where the sound might have originated.

  • If your dog hears something generally in front of them and they want to focus on it, they will tilt their head in the direction the sound came from.
  • If they hear something behind them, they will turn their head slightly and then tilt it to hear better.
  • Depending on your dog's breed and ear flap shape, sounds from the side may not cause them to tilt their heads. This is because their ears usually pick up sounds better.
Fast Fact

Many dog breeds have distinctly shaped ear flaps and ear canals. Because of this, some breeds have more trouble determining the direction of sound than other breeds.

2. Your Dog is Expressing Confusion

When your dog tilts their head, it may mean they're confused. It could be that your dog is unsure of what is going on or is trying to figure out a new situation. Most of the time, this is because they heard something they can't identify yet, but sometimes they just tilt their head out of surprise or wariness.

If your dog tilts their head when something strange or unusual happens, they're probably just unsure of what's going on. Tilting their head gives them more information about the sounds they're hearing.

Fast Fact

Dogs might even learn to tilt their heads in response to the feedback we give them. Essentially, you might be conditioning your dog to tilt their heads when you react positively to how cute they look.

3. They're Communicating With You

When your dog tilts their head while you're talking, it might be that they're trying to understand what you're saying. Dogs are social animals, and they're good at reading body language. Dogs can understand what you mean when you say something like "Sit," "Stay," or "Xome." They also understand the tone of your voice and whether you are happy or angry with them.

So, when your dog looks right at you an tilts their head, they're trying to listen to you intently. However, they're also showing you that they're paying attention. They might even be a little unsure of what your words mean, so they're listening closely to pick out words they understand.

4. They're Trying to See Better

Most dogs have muzzles and forward-facing eyes. Because of this, they can't always see what is directly in front of them as clearly as their flat-faced humans do. So, if your dog is looking at you while they tilt their head, it could be that they are trying to recognize your facial expressions to better understand what you're trying to tell them.

Dogs probably also tilt their heads to see other dogs' expressions better. This helps them identify expressions when they're confused about the signals they're receiving.

Fast Fact

Dogs are super social. They can even pick up on human facial cues, probably better than most other animals.

5. They Might Have a Health Issue

Head tilting is a common behavior in dogs. Most of the time, it's normal. However, there are some reasons your pet might be tilting their head that you should be aware of:

  • Ear infection: If your dog is shaking their head or tilting it to one side consistently, they might have an ear infection. They are tilting to try to get whatever is bothering their ear to stop. Usually, a dog with an ear infection will appear to be bothered by their ear on the side they're tilting their head.
  • Epilepsy: In rare cases, head tilting can signal something more serious. In addition to displaying other symptoms - possibly including seizures - dogs who have epilepsy may tilt their head in unusual ways. However, this is not very common, and you will probably notice other symptoms before head tilting.
  • Canine vestibular disease: This is a neurological condition that affects the inner ear and results in symptoms such as head tilting, circling, and disorientation. The vestibular system controls balance and coordination in the body. This is a rare condition, and if your dog is just tilting their head and not displaying other symptoms, they're probably OK.

When to Contact Your Vet

Head tilting is rarely caused by a health issue in dogs. However, if you notice your dog is head tilting a lot in a particular direction, and they appear to be upset or in pain, you might need to have their ears checked. If they are acting disoriented or off-balance, something more serious might be going on. If your dog head-tilts while displaying any other concerning symptoms, call your vet.

Head Tilts are Adorable

Head tilting is a common dog behavior that can have multiple causes. This is normal behavior, most of the time. Don't worry if your pup gives you an adorable, quizzical look while they tilt their heads. They're probably just trying to understand you better, or they heard something interesting and they want more info. Watch your pup's reaction, and you can probably figure out what they're interested in and what they're trying to communicate to you.

Uncovering the Adorable Reasons Dogs Tilt Their Heads