While dogs can speak to each other in the form of barks and other similar sounds, they can’t always communicate with us in a way that’s as easy to understand. Without shared words, body language is often critical in the relationship between dog and pet parent.
We know that a dog with a loose body position and a mouth slightly open is usually happy, while one who’s still and licking his lips likely feels frightened or stressed.
But what about a dog who’s tilting their head? It sort of looks like they are confused or curious—like a real-life version of Scooby Doo saying “Aroo?”
We spoke with veterinary behavior experts to learn more about head tilting in dogs, including what the behavior means and what pet parents should do about it.
Dog Tilting Head: Is It Normal?
Whether head tilting in dogs is normal or abnormal depends on the individual dog and the context of the behavior.
“Some dogs offer head tilts more than others, but it’s not clear yet why,” says Ellen M. Lindell, VMD, DACVB, a board certified veterinary behaviorist at Veterinary Behavior Consultations in Asheville, North Carolina.
That’s because the behavior hasn’t been researched too extensively. However, one recent study offers at least a loose suggestion that tilting behavior can be associated with dogs who are “gifted word learners.” (1)
The study looked at 40 breeds of dogs and tried to get them to memorize names of various toys and recall that information shortly thereafter. Seven of the dogs showed a strong ability to complete the tasks, while the others did not. Those seven dogs tilted their heads 43 percent of the time, while the other dogs only tilted their heads 2 percent of the time.
Lindell says more research will be needed to determine if this conclusion is strong and consistent enough to indicate that head tilting is truly associated with smarts, as well as if there are any breed-specific associations with the behavior.
Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?
Perhaps the most familiar reason for dogs to tilt their heads is in response to auditory stimuli, says Amy Learn, VMD, DACVB, Chief of Clinical Behavioral Medicine at the Animal Behavior Wellness Center in Richmond, Virginia. “The action is thought to be when an animal is processing or responding to a sound or word that has some significance, meaning that they have already been taught to identify that object.”
Learn adds that not all dogs are able to learn the label for certain objects and not all dogs who recognize certain words tilt their heads. Dogs may also tilt their heads when hearing a new sound for the very first time.
Some dogs may tilt their head to the left, while others tilt to the right. This appears to be simply an individual preference of the dog, as long as response to stimuli is the reason for the head tilt.
Dog head tilting may also be an attempt to gain human attention. Though there is no evidence to suggest that dogs tilt their heads deliberately to look cuter, one study suggests a head tilt can increase their cuteness factor (2). In addition, positively reinforced behaviors tend to repeat over time. So if your dog tilts their head and you respond by laughing, praising, or giving a treat, this will encourage them to do it more often, Learn says.
In other cases, dog head tilting could be a sign of an underlying medical issue. If your dog starts tilting their head for the first time out of nowhere, the behavior is most likely due to a health problem. This is especially likely in the case of senior dogs that develop a new head tilt.
“Any behavior that has never been seen and suddenly appears suggests potential for a medical component,” Lindell says. “New behavioral traits don’t suddenly appear once dogs are 1 ½ years old unless the stimulus is novel.”
When Head Tilt in Dogs Indicates a Problem
When a medical issue is the cause of head tilting, the tilt will be persistent and may occur when the dog is still or moving, Lindell says. “The dog is not likely to be specifically engaged with a person or oriented toward a sound when experiencing a medical event,” she says.
Problematic head tilting may also occur when a dog is walking in a circle, Learn adds. Other signs that come with an illness-caused head tilt may include:
- Head, ear, or neck pain
- Abnormal eye movements
- Lowered head carriage or difficulty holding the head up
- Falling over
- Inability to stand
“Illnesses that cause head tilts usually involve inflammatory or infectious causes and may or may not be painful,” Learn says. The systems infected include the brain and brain stem, as well as vestibular system, or the inner ear.
When it comes to ear-related triggers for head tilting, you may also notice your dog shaking their head. This is a very different behavior than head tilting, but Learn says they both can be associated with ear infections.
If you notice any of these symptoms coming on suddenly, along with persistent head tilting, seek out immediate medical attention. Most tilt-related medical problems will require significant diagnostics and treatment, Learn says, and some may even be life-threatening.
A new head tilt in a senior dog isn’t always a serious concern, though. A head tilt in an older dog that is accompanied by abnormal eye movements and other signs could be caused by a benign condition called “old dog vestibular disease.” This condition, which affects senior dogs (as its name suggests), often results in a head tilt, circling, trouble balancing, and other clinical signs that are consistent with dizziness or vertigo. Distinguishing between vestibular disease and other, more serious, conditions requires the expertise of a veterinarian.
On the other hand, if your dog shows no signs of pain or arousal and is still when they give their head a quick tilt, it is likely behavior related, Lindell says. “A behavioral head tilt will be brief and usually accompanied by an expression that I’ll just call ‘curiosity.’”