Humans and dogs have been living together for millennia. And in that time, they’ve co-developed, with people adapting to dogs and vice versa. In that time, domesticated pooches have developed a string of behaviors that are entirely different from their wolf ancestors. One of these behaviors is head tilting. Dogs will stare at you with their heads cocked to one side or the other, instead of being level. It’s often very noticeable. But what makes them do this? Is it just random?
Researchers think that it’s more than just a weird tick. The science suggests that it might be related to a pooch’s emotional intelligence. Dogs, it turns out, are very good at picking up on the state of mind of their owners. They know, for instance, when you’re excited, sad, angry, or annoyed. Researchers think that their head movements might have something to do with their interpretation of your mood.
Because dogs are not people, they can’t empathize with the same emotions that we have. Dogs do not share many of the thoughts and feelings that we experience. They have their own setup. However, they appear to have rudimentary skills of empathy. They can listen and recognise you as something separate from themselves. And this fact might be at the root of why they tilt their head.
Tilting seems to be context-independent. Dogs will do it whether you’re praising them for being a good pup or scolding them for eating the furniture. It appears to be a sign that they’re paying attention to what you’re saying and taking note (in their own way).
The Canine Ear Hypothesis:
Researchers also suggest that tilting may occur because of differences in the construction of the canine ear compared to those of humans. Dogs have very sensitive ears and can hear a similar range of sounds to us. However, their directional hearing might not be as good as ours.
Humans have particularly good directional hearing because of the distance our ears are from each other. The left and right ears pick up sounds with a slight delay, allowing people to determine where a noise is coming from. Dog ears are closer together and also more buried in the skull, meaning that differentiation is not as high.
Tilting of the head, therefore, might be a way for them to better hear where commands are coming from, by changing the angle of the sound. Adjusting their pinnae could let them pinpoint the location of noises in their environment.
What This Means For Owners:
Dogs that tilt their heads may be more empathetic than those that don’t. It may be a sign that they’re listening for specific words or inflections. It may also make dog training easier. Dogs who listen more intently can carry out your commands better.
The way your dog tilts its head is also an indication of their character. Cocking it to one side and looking right at you is a sign of health and strength. Pointing their nose towards the floor, however, suggests deference and worry. What signs is your dog giving you?
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