Why Does My Dog Tilt Their Head to Listen?

There’s nothing cuter than a dog tilting their head. Something about the concentration on their face as they flop their ears back and forth makes our hearts melt. They look like they’re trying their hardest to understand every word you say. No one could deny the cute factor of this behavior, but what’s the true reason behind the tilt? Research has suggested that there may be more than one surprising motivation for this type of movement.
Until recently, there was much speculation but not a lot of research on why pets cock their heads. It has been said that the tilt may help position one of their ears to hear us better, or that they simply pick up on our positive response to that behavior and continue doing it as a way to earn our smiles and rewards.
A recent study conducted by Dr. Stanley Coren of Psychology Today’s Canine Corner Blog suggested that the motive may have more to do with vision than hearing or social cues. “We know that dogs continually scan our faces for information and to read our emotional state,” Dr. Coren states. “Hence it is likely that one reason why dogs may tilt their heads when we talk to them is because they want to see our faces better, and to compensate for the way in which their muzzles obscure part of their vision.”
Test out this theory yourself by placing your fist tight against your nose. Try looking straight ahead – your fist blocks your vision a bit, doesn’t it? Now try tilting your head to one side. Is it easier to focus on something past your fist? This may be the case for some dogs with longer snouts.
Simulating a dog’s snout (Psychology Today)
Dr. Coren tested this theory by surveying pet owners and dividing them into groups based on the size of their dog’s snout. He asked these 582 people to report how frequently their dog tilted their head when being spoken to. Of the larger muzzle group, 72% of people reported that their dog often tilted their head. Only 52% of those pet owners with flatter muzzles gave the same report. Though 52% is still a large percentage, the significant difference between the groups prompted Dr. Coren to determine that vision may be a contributing factor. Even a muzzle that is on the flatter side may still get in the way.
This is not to say that hearing or the simple desire to be cute aren’t a part of the motivation behind this sweet little gesture. There may be a combination of reasons for that adorable cock of the head. Whatever the reason, there’s one thing we know for sure – it makes for some really cute photographs!