Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?


Hey BrainStuff, Cristen here. Our question
for the day is “Why do dogs tilt their heads?”, and I’ve gotta warn you: This is one of
those questions where the answer is “No one knows for sure.” But we do have some educated guesses. They
tend to fall into three categories: Sight, Sound, and Psychology. Sight is the easy one. Imagine that you have
a snout. At certain angles, it would block certain parts of your vision. We know that pooches can watch human faces
and respond appropriately to expressions of emotion, like happiness or anger. Research published over the past couple years
has found that dogs systematically look at our entire faces, especially our eyes, to
get a handle on our emotions. So it makes sense that a dog would tilt its
head to better see your face, and therefore determine whether treats are on the way. But not all dogs have long muzzles. If sight
were the only factor in head tilting, brachycephalic babies like pugs would never tilt. Let’s look at Sound. Dogs’ hearing tends
to be at least twice as sensitive as humans’ – we hear sound waves that occur in the
range of about 20 to 20,000 vibrations per second (or Hertz). Dogs, depending on their breed and age, can
hear sounds of about 40 to 65,000 Hertz. Meaning they can detect sounds of much higher pitches
from much further away. Dogs cope with all that audio information
partially by moving around their pinna: their fuzzy, scritchable outer ears. So some canines
– especially those with floppy pinna covering the front of their ear openings – may tilt
their heads to move their pinna and hone in on the sounds you’re making. Furthermore, dogs have muscles that let them
better process sounds in their middle ears. Those muscles just happen to be governed by
part of the brainstem called the nucleus ambiguus – yeah, it’s called the nucleus ambiguus
– which just happens to also govern facial expressions, gaze, vocalizations, and head
movements. This could mean that dogs reflexively tilt
their heads, sort of as a byproduct of trying to concentrate on a sound. Or, as Stephen R. Lindsay says in his “Handbook
of Applied Dog Behavior and Training,” that brainstem connection could encourage head-tilting
as a form of communication. Meaning that when Buddy tilts his head, he’s
trying to say that he’s paying attention to me. He sees me! He really sees me! But, as with all studies into animal behavior,
this Psychology factor is the most difficult to figure out. Some researchers suggest that
dogs tilt their heads so often because they know we find it stinkin’ adorable. Specifically,
because we respond with praise or other positive feedback when they tilt. Studies have shown that dogs use social cues
with humans that they don’t use with each other, like direct eye contact, to elicit
positive responses. Maybe all that head tilting is just the very cutest form of emotional
manipulation. Do you know a head-tilting dog? If so, let
us know why you think they tilt – and link us to a video. We always need more dog videos. You can learn what your dog’s yawn means
in this video over here, and about all kinds of animal behavior – human included – at
HowStuffWorks.com.

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