A new study examined why dogs tilt their heads aside, and showed that this action is related to hearing words that have meaning for the dogs, and is probably related to concentration and attention.
This description will be familiar to many dog owners: you turn to your dog, maybe ask him to do something – sit, give a hand – or maybe just tell him he is a good and beautiful dog, and he looks back at you, and tilts his head aside. This little movement is incredibly cute and mysterious. Until recently, there have been almost no studies examining why dogs feel the need to look at us on like that.
In a new study, researchers from Hungary took on this task, and although they have not yet been able to reach a full explanation of the phenomenon, they did find clues that would lead to it. Their findings show that tilting the head is mainly done when the dog understands what is being asked of him, and is probably related to an increase in concentration and paying attention to the speaker.
Relevant and meaningful words
The researchers found the topic almost by accident when they were studying something very different: the ability of dogs to recognize words and, in particular, the names of their toys. The researchers found that a small portion of dogs, whom they called “gifted word learners,” were able to learn dozens of toy names.
In one of their studies, they tried to teach the names of new toys to six of these gifted dogs and 34 other dogs. All of the dogs previously known to be word learners learned them easily, but only one of the other dogs was able to do so. All of the others were able to learn one name at most.
During the study, the dogs’ owners asked them to go to another room and bring a certain toy from there. The researchers, who watched videos documenting this, noticed that the dogs who had successfully learned names often responded to the request by tilting their heads – a test showed that they did so 43% of the time. In contrast, the dogs that failed to learn tilted their heads only two percent of the time.
The researchers point out that all the dogs heard the name of the toy many times, so the difference was not dependent on familiarity with the word. However, the dogs were more likely to tilt their heads if they knew the name and its meaning.
“There seems to be a correlation between success in returning the correct toy and the frequency of head tilt when hearing the name,” concluded Shani Dror, one of the researchers.
“Therefore, we hypothesize that there is a link between head tilt and processing of relevant and meaningful stimuli.”
Left dog, right dog
Another finding that emerged from the study is that each dog has a preferred direction to which he tilts his head, left or right, regardless of the location of the person talking to him. The researchers believe that this preference may be related to the division of roles between the two sides of the brain, as is also the case in humans. Previous studies have shown that dogs do process human speech mainly on one side of the brain, and the side varies from dog to dog. However, the present study could not substantiate this hypothesis because the researchers did not test the brain activity of the dogs.
So quite a bit of mystery still surrounds the cute and weird behavior of our best friends.
“The next step is to ask more questions to understand what head tilt means,”Monique Udell, an animal researcher who did not participate in the study, told the journal Science.
“Can the tilt of the head predict the ability to learn words? Or perhaps attention, or memory?”
The answers to these questions will have to wait for further research.
Footnotes – What does it mean when a dog looks at you sideways:
Fugazza, C., Dror, S., Sommese, A. et al. Word learning dogs (Canis familiaris) provide an animal model for studying exceptional performance. Sci Rep 11, 14070 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-93581-2.