- A new study suggests when dogs cock their head to one side or the other, they are trying to understand what you are saying or doing.
- Extra smart or “gifted learner” dogs are much more likely to tilt their head than a more average pup.
- A voice command from a pet parent is what usually triggers the tilt.
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If you are a pet parent of a dog, you’ve no doubt been charmed if your canine pal cocks his head quizzically to one side and then the other as if to say, “what are you doing?” or “what did you just say?”
Strangely enough, scientists have never studied this cute maneuver until now. Researchers in Budapest, Hungary, recently did a deep dive into the phenomena to learn which dogs do it and possible reasons why.
The study focused on a few dogs who could learn the names of at least ten toys. These talented pups are called “gifted word learners” – they are basically the geniuses of dogs. In the experiment, all seven ultra-clever dogs happened to be Border Collies, long considered among the most intelligent breeds. However, researchers said that even most Border Collies don’t have the skill to learn multiple toy names, and a few dogs of other breeds do.
How they conducted the study
Over several months, researchers observed 40 dogs by testing them on their knowledge of the names of objects and then having humans ask them to fetch a familiar toy.
Of the dogs the researchers studied, 33 were typical pet dogs motivated by toys, and the other seven were bright border collies. All the gifted word learners could recall and retrieve at least ten toys they had learned the names of, while the other dogs could only manage a couple of names.
During part one of the study, the dog was sitting in front of the owner, and they would ask the dog to fetch one of the toys in another room (“bring rope!”), and the dog would fetch the toy and bring it back.
Researchers noted whether the dog tilted their head left or right while standing in front of the owner and given a command.
The researchers only included the gifted pups in the second part of the study. This time, all the new toys the dogs had learned were used, up to 13 toys. The owner randomly requested each toy twice. Several months later, the test was repeated, using 18 new toys that the dogs learned to identify.
Their results indicated that only dogs who had learned the name of the objects tilted their heads frequently. They concluded that when dogs tilt their heads, they are processing relevant, meaningful information; for example, the dog heard key words they know and are paying attention. The tilt could also mean the dog is trying to access his memory of what the toy looks like, they said.
The scientists found that gifted dogs tilted their heads much more frequently than typical dogs when looking at their owner as they spoke. When asked to retrieve a toy—gifted dogs cocked their heads 43% of the time over dozens of trials. The typical dogs tilted just 2% of the time, they reported in Animal Cognition.
Why dogs favor one side over the other
The study notes that many animals, including fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals process sensory information asymmetrically, meaning they use their left or right brain. A previous study showed that dogs consistently turn their head slightly to the left when they hear a command they know. They tended to turn to the right when their owners praised them. Dogs display this asymmetry in other ways, such as a tail wag more to one side or a preference for one paw over the other.
This may explain why dogs tend to favor the left or right side when tilting their heads. In the experiments, some dogs cocked only left, some only right, and some did both.
The researchers concluded what you might have expected – that the puppy head cock is related to increased concentration and recall in our furry friends.
While the experiment was limited in scope, they hope to follow up with more study of non-gifted dogs to determine what kind of sounds might be meaningful and elicit the same behavior.
Until then, pet parents can assume if your dog tilts their head to either side, they’re probably smart and are trying to understand what you are doing or saying. And that you have a strong bond with your four-legged friend because they care enough to want to know what you are saying. So, the aww you feel when they do this sweet behavior is wholly justified.