Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the hysterical YouTube video of four pugs tilting their heads in unison (well, almost in unison) to various suggestions, spoken in the rising-pitch singsong fashion that we tend to use to speak to our canines.


After you’re done laughing, this may lead you to wonder: why does Mabel tilt her head in response to her human’s voice? It’s a phenomenon that has long intrigued dog lovers. In England back in the 1880s, for example, after fox terrier named Nipper’s human died, the dog was adopted by artist Francois Barraud. As Sharon Lynn Vanderlip recounts in her book, Fox Terriers: A Complete Owner’s Manual, Barraud observed Nipper’s habit of sitting in front of his phonograph and tilting his head in response to the sounds. The artist speculated that Nipper was waiting to hear his dead human companion. That inspired Barraud to create the famous painting “His Master’s Voice,” which later was adopted by RCA as its symbol.

blog post photo

Unfortunately, since Nipper never wrote his memoirs, we’ll never know what was actually going through his head as he sat in front of Barraud’s record player. (We can’t rule out the possibility that he was perplexed by the artist’s kitschy musical tastes.)

The explanations of the head tilt in canine behavioral texts seem to vary. In Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, head-tilting is portrayed simply as an effort by dogs to adjust their pinnae, or outer ears, to focus upon the precise location of sounds. That’s something at which they’re actually not as good as humans, despite their ability to hear frequencies that we can’t detect. (By the way, here’s a basic primer on the anatomy of the canine ear.)

In contrast, Steven R. Lindsay’s Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training sees the head tilt as a combination of physiological response and communication cues, which makes more sense to me. When a dog is listening to your voice, Lindsay writes, he or she is trying to identify familiar words and intonations that the dog has learned to associate with some activity (such as going for a walk or getting a treat). The muscles of the middle ear, which your dog uses to perceive such nuances of sound, are controlled by the nucleus ambiguus, a part of the brain stem that also controls facial expressions and head movements that are a part of canine communication. Neural control of the middle ear, he notes, works in synergy with facial expression, gaze, and vocalization. Ergo, Mabel the pug’s head tilt is simultaneously an effort by the dog to perceive what you’re saying, and a message to you that she is listening.

Lindsay also notes that “socially apprehensive” dogs generally don’t exhibit the head-tilt behavior. That may be why Kirby, my frenetic, frenzied puggle, doesn’t seem to tilt his head very much. In comparison, our more emotionally well-adjusted occasional guest pug, Tippy — whose human actually gave him that name because of his propensity for head-tilting — seems to hang on my every word. Maybe he’s more empathetic. Or maybe he’s just more determined to get a treat.


  1. Tim
    June 18, 2013, 11:33 am

    I don´t think head-tilting is a communication cues: Yesterday night i spotted two jung foxes 3m away in the headlight of my car. Switched off the motor and they watch the car. Both tilted their head with every little sound i made. So i think it is more a physiological thing than a communication signal.

  2. […] Geographic took a stab at explaining why pugs (and numerous other breeds) do the whole head-tilting thing, but it seems like no one’s […]

  3. […] Geographic took a stab at explaining why pugs (and numerous other breeds) do the whole head-tilting thing, but it seems like no one’s […]

  4. chilli1327
    February 5, 2014, 12:31 pm

    Head tilting has been shown, over and over, as a way for a dog to get a better angle to hear what they are interested in. My dogs have always done this to my voice, a strangers voice etc. if they are really interested in what they are doing. It is really interesting, because when we are out walking, and they hear something they are interested in, person or thing, it doesn’t matter, they will do this head tilt. I have a Walker Coon Hound right now, and she does this all the time when she hears other animals etc. outside. Humans think they are so self important that they attribute this to a “social” thing with their dog, and this is only part of it. If it was the only thing, dogs would not do so with other noises.

    I think people and their dogs should get over themselves!

  5. Stacey
    Tennessee, United States
    May 30, 2014, 12:06 pm

    My Boston terrier tilts her head a lot when I say things to her and it’s a common word. I think i have her full attention when she head tilts and when her ears pop up after saying something like “potty”

  6. […] [Fuentes: PsychologyToday.com, HufftingtonPost.com, NationalGeographic.com] […]

  7. Flip
    April 18, 2015, 3:56 pm

    The only time I seen dogs do this with any of my dogs was when I made a funny noise, usually high pitch. It maybe some kind of jester like when they point. They know what it means between each other. Honestly I never seen them do it to normal voices tell I started seeking answers. I first thought it was an clearly unknown sound. After seeing YouTube videos on the topic I believe its something to do with the pitch.

  8. Janet
    Murrells Inlet SC
    October 29, 2015, 3:21 pm

    I have raised many dogs and the head tilt is in response to your tone, the word, and the following action. If you notice when he asked if they wanted to go for a ride, head tilt, recognition, response! Dogs are very intuitive and intelligent. They learn from a very early age what tones of voice and words mean! High pitched, excited voices get the best response because it results in something positive for them, whether it’s Walkies, bark park, or their favorite, TREATS, they know what it means ! A good time/thing. And in their world, there’s nothing better!