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Why Dogs Tilt Their Head When Listening: 11 Different Reasons

Does your dog tilt their head when listening to you? Find out the 11 different reasons this may be happening, and if it's something to worry about.


Last Updated: June 2, 2023 | 8 min read

Dog Tilting Head While Listening

This article was written by a veterinary technician, but it should not substitute as contact with your veterinarian. If your dog starts tilting their head more than normal, contact your local vet immediately.

One of the most adorable things dogs do is tilt their head when we are talking to them. The canine head tilt melts our hearts each time and causes us to shower them with smiles and encouragement. It’s quite possible you’ve found that perfect noise to make them tilt their heads, or perhaps your dog just does it randomly.

But why do dogs actually tilt their heads? Is there a meaning behind it? Could there be multiple reasons, and do we even understand what this endearing canine behavior means? The short answer is yes, there are actually multiple reasons this could be happening.

In the article below, we will walk through 11 different possible reasons your pup could be giving you the head tilt. This will help ensure you understand your pup better going forward. So, let’s jump in and talk about the most common reasons you might see this adorable behavior.

Reasons For Head Tilting

There are several reasons that your pup may exhibit this favor. It ranges from curiosity to a strange noise to having them just flat-out understand exactly how you are feeling that day. Let’s jump in and look at all the possible reasons you can expect, along with if you should worry.

They Hear an Interesting Sound

Black Pitbull Listening To Sound
If your dog tilts their head, it’s often due to a high pitched, or interesting sound.

The most common reason your pup may tilt their head is that they’ve heard an interesting sound. This could be a high-pitched squeak, another dog barking as they walk by, or really anything that’s out of the ordinary. In fact, there have even been some viral video challenges that have encouraged dog owners to see the head tilt by playing different sounds. It’s quite common for this to happen when there’s a new sound, so this is nothing to be alarmed about.

They Are Curious

Curious Puppy
Your dog may just be curious as to what you’re up.

This may be your dog’s way of showing their curiosity about what you are trying to tell. We don’t speak the same language as our furry friends, so the common human conversation may leave them puzzled. A dog’s head tilt may be their reaction to hearing an unknown statement and simply trying to figure out what you could be trying to communicate. Just as you and I might shrug our shoulders when we don’t fully understand something, this may be your pup’s way of saying, “Please elaborate.”

They Are Empathetic

Lab with Tilted Head
Dogs are intuitive and may sense when their owners are upset.

Recent studies have proven that our canine friends can read emotions on our faces. As a pet owner, you’ve likely experienced a time when your pup curled up next to you on a particularly rough day. This is because our dogs get to know us over time, and can sense when something seems a bit off.

In researching our dogs’ ability to read emotions on our faces, some studies suggest that dogs offer subtle clues to show their empathy toward what we are currently feeling. Because of this, some believe that a dog’s hilt tilt may be their way of showing us that they care.

Similar to a pat on the back of a friend that is struggling, a dog’s head tilt may be their way of offering us support. There are several different ways a dog may try to tell us that they are being empathetic, and a head tilt is one that’s quite common.

They Know It’s Cute

Adorable Dog With Head Tilt
Your dog may have taken cues that this behavior is adorable.

There’s no doubt about it. Canine head tilts are adorable. Each time our dogs participate in this behavior, we usually offer them a smile and a sign of encouragement. Our furry friends are extremely smart and quickly catch on to things that bring them extra attention.

Their love of positive reinforcement will lead them to continue any behavior that wins them a smile, causing them to repeat the behavior going forward. They know their head tilts are cute, so they continue to do it!

To Improve Their Hearing

Old Dog Head Tilt
Dogs can lose their hearing as they age and may tilt their head to hear better.

Many canine experts believe that our dogs tilt their heads to ensure that they take in every sound that comes their way. While we know our dogs have impeccable hearing, they may believe that tilting their head will offer the best sound collection possible.

Most head tilts are followed by intense focus and concentration on the person or object that is making the sound, further solidifying the fact that they are trying to take it all in. This can be especially true in dogs with large or floppy ears, as their pinnas may obstruct certain sounds that come their way.

To Improve Their Vision

Sernior Dog Examining Owner
Some dogs may adjust their head’s angle in order to improve their vision.

Many dog experts believe that a dog’s head tilt may be due to the fact that their muzzles obstruct their view. Some dogs have long noses that interfere with their ability to read the emotions on our faces, especially breeds with long pointed muzzles. Recent studies show that dogs with long muzzles have a difficult time seeing the bottom of our face. Since so much of our emotion can be determined through mouth position, this can make it challenging for our pups to decipher.

Our dogs have a deep need to understand us, meaning they will do anything possible to determine the emotion on our faces. The behavior quickly moves their muzzle out of their view, allowing them to better see the bottom portion of our face. This fact is further solidified by the results of a recent study comparing long-muzzled breeds to brachycephalic breeds (those with short muzzles). This study found that 71% of dogs with long muzzles tilt their heads, while only 50% of brachycephalic breeds do.

They Know It Brings A Reward

Boxer Dog Waiting on Treat
Some pups may know that a reward is coming and tilt their head.

As we mentioned above, our dogs catch on quickly, to which behaviors offer them a reward. Whether the reward is your attention or a tasty treat, they will soon repeat the behavior to claim that prize more often. Since the canine head tilt is so adorable, we will often smile at this behavior or offer positive attention each time they do it. Our furry friends are smart, and they will quickly pick up on the fact that this adorable behavior will bring them the reward they crave.

They Recognize A Word

Dog Recognizing Recall
When a dog recognizes a word or command, they may adjust their head.

Every dog has a list of words that they really love. They know that certain words lead to their favorite rewards, and quickly recognize them each time they are said. Whether they recognize the tones or the actual word and its meaning, it usually causes a wave of excitement each time they are spoken.

When a dog is happy, they may perk up their ears and offer an excited tail wag. This can even be accompanied by a quick head tilt just to verify that they indeed heard their favorite word. If the behavior is followed by a burst of excitement, they may have just recognized a word that they love.

They Are Extremely Clever

Intelligent Dog Outdoors
Clever dogs will just try to understand their owner better.

While there are many possible reasons behind the canine head tilt, many of them come back to simply trying to understand their human better. Because this shows a general interest in what they’re seeing and hearing around them, this can mean that some pups are simply smarter than others.

When a dog is curious about their surroundings and is eager to learn, this tends to mean that they are extremely clever. While there is no solid evidence stating that these pups are actually smarter than their other canine friends, it’s a possibility worth mentioning.

Their Ear Hurts

Dog with Sore Ear
A head tilt may be a signal that your dog’s ear is bothering them.

If you have ever experienced an ear infection, you know how painful it can be. Ear infections are extremely common in our furry friends and can cause an array of uncomfortable symptoms. An overgrowth of yeast or bacteria can quickly turn into a painful infection, causing a dog to tilt its head in the direction of the infected ear.

If your pup is tilting their head along with pawing at their ears, shaking their head, has a foul odor coming from the ears, or any changes in their ear appearance, they may have a painful ear. This is especially true of middle ear infections, as they generally cause a chronic head tilt. Ear infections can be easily treated with the support of your veterinarian, so it’s best to have them seen at the first sign of symptoms.

Other Medical Concerns

Cute Dog Looking at Owner
You’ll want to rule out any potential medical concerns if tilting becomes a frequent occurrence.

Head tilting can be a sign of a few medical conditions in our canine companions.  A dog’s ears are involved in many conditions that involve balance, meaning this behavior is often the result. To help you better understand the possible reasons for head tilting in your pup, let’s list the most common medical conditions behind this behavior.

  • Ear infections
  • Ear injuries
  • Tumors in the ear
  • Ear mites
  • Vestibular disease
  • Blindness
  • Brain tumors
  • Thiamine deficiencies
  • Neurological abnormalities

If you think there might be a medical cause behind their head tilting, it’s best to speak with your veterinarian about proper diagnostics and care. A sudden head tilt can be a sign of a serious medical condition, so it’s best to have them seen at the first sign of symptoms.

Should You Be Concerned?

So when should you be concerned? While most canine head tilts are just a sign of an inquisitive pup, there are a few cases that involve something a bit more complicated. To help you better understand when this is becoming a concern, there are a few signs to look out for.

You should be concerned when:

  • Your dog tilts their head without noise.
  • They appear dizzy or disoriented.
  • Your dog is unsteady on their feet.
  • You notice black dirt or debris in their ear.
  • Your pup aggressively pawing at his ears.
  • Your dog is shaking its head profusely.
  • Their ears appear red or inflamed.
  • Your pup has nystagmus (involuntary and rapid eye movement).
  • it’s accompanied by neurological symptoms such as seizures, confusion, etc.
  • They seem to have a change in vision
  • Any other change in behavior

If your pup falls into any of the above categories, it’s best to have them seen by a veterinarian.

Do All Dogs Do It?

While a head tilt is a normal behavior for our canine companions, it does not mean that all dogs do it. Some furry friends tilt their heads at every sound that comes their way, while others never participate in the behavior. Head tilting is not required to hear the world around them, so some dogs will never do it.

If your dog does this frequently, this may mean that you have an especially empathic pup on your hands. Some studies suggest that dogs with low social tolerance tend to shy away from head tilting, while dogs with outgoing and inquisitive personalities tend to display this behavior more often. A dog that does it after each word you speak may be trying to deeply understand you and show their support in a way they know how.

If your pup has not begun to tilt their head by the time they are 6-8 months of age, they will likely never display the behavior. If your adult dog suddenly begins to head tilt without an obvious sound trigger, it’s best to rule out any medical concerns with your vet.

Can You Train A Dog To Head Tilt?

Some dog owners think the behavior is so adorable that they have trained their pups to cock their heads on cue! Doing this on command can make for some adorable dog photos, as well as a fun trick to show off to your guests. While every pup is different, some dog trainers have shared their most effective tips for training a dog to do it on cue.

The most common route to teaching the head cock trick involves rewarding your dog after a high-frequency sound. For example, most dogs will tilt their head slightly when hearing a high pitch noise. By offering a sharp whistle or high pitch sound of some kind, you can quickly reward your dog with a treat immediately after they tilt their head.

Just be sure to say your chosen cue word when giving the treat, as your dog can soon begin to associate the head cock trick with the cue word. This will eliminate the need to make the high pitch sound in the future, as they will soon cock their head at the sound of the cue to earn their treat.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, there are many possible reasons why your dog is tilting its head. By reviewing the information that we discussed above, you can better understand this adorable behavior going forward. You may even be able to teach your dog to head cock on command.

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  1. I saw a large dog using his ears to keep a rhythm to a song beat. Please find it for me to see again.
    Also, I want to send it to a friend who loves dogs.

  2. I’ve often wondered if the head tilt may also aid in sound source location. With their ears on either side of the head, a dog can locate the source of a sound as somewhere on a 360 degree circle. But by tilting their head, they shift the ears (and eyes) slightly out of that flat plane, and possibly can get information about the elevation of the sound source as well, while adding more data for visual location. “That noise came from my right. Now I want to know if it’s above or below me.”

  3. My dog is nearly 17 and no longer does the tilting of the head. He’s still very healthy and goes for long walks. Also, unless he’s excited about another dog on the walks (a particular dog he happens to like the look of), he doesn’t wag his tail much anymore either. He’s a Jack Russell/Beagle/Dachhund.

    1. Hi Sandra, yep, that can happen as our pups age! Sounds like you have a wonderful dog though, who’s lived a long and happy life! Thanks for stopping by to comment and share!

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