Dogs exhibit some adorable behaviors. One of these is the head tilt. Have you ever talked to your dog and seen them tilt their head with a confused expression? They seem to be saying, “Huh?”, or attempting to understand what you are saying. Do they really tilt their head to understand better? The answer is, sort of.
Do dogs tilt their heads when Confused?
Dogs do tilt their head when they encounter a seemingly confusing situation. However, most experts don’t believe dogs experience confusion in the same way we think about it.
However, just like us, they sometimes need to gather more information to understand a situation. Is that why they tilt their head, or is there another explanation?
One common theory for why dog’s tilt their head when confused is to hear better. Many animals, including humans, tilt their head to hear better. It’s known as triangulation.
Dogs hear much better than humans. We don’t know if dogs need to adjust their position to hear better because they receive much more input, or if its because their ears are shaped differently. Regardless, dogs often need to position their ears differently to hear better.
When it comes to humans, we hear low frequencies as phase. This means if it’s directly in front of or behind you, it’s hard to tell which direction it’s coming from. This is because the sound waves hit both ears at the same time due to being equal distances from the sound.
When this occurs, we naturally tilt our head. This allows us to discern which direction the sound is coming from.
It’s important to note that smell and hearing are the dog’s sharpest senses. They don’t just listen to the words, although they can learn up to 200 words, but your tone of voice. This tells them a lot about your emotional state. So it’s possible they tilt their head to better hear the nuances of your voice.
Your dog may also tilt their head if they hear a sound that they haven’t heard before or that interests them.
The part of the brain that controls the dog’s middle ear, which is the part that actually filters sound, also controls nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication includes facial expressions, and, of course, head tilt. It’s possible that the head tilt is actually an unintended effect.
Some theorize that dogs don’t tilt their heads to hear better. Instead, they tilt their heads to see better. One researcher found that head tilting is more common in dogs with a longer nose or muzzle.
If you place your fist at the end of your nose, you’ll notice that your field of vision is obstructed. It’s possible that your dog tilts their head to see you better, without their nose being in the way.
We know that dogs do observe our facial expressions. Sight is a secondary sense for dogs, meaning it’s not the sense they rely on most. However, they still use sight to gather vital information.
Dogs watch our facial expressions, particularly our mouth and eyes, because they tell them a lot about what we are thinking and feeling. The mouth reveals our mood and emotional state, while the eyes show who or what we are focused on at that moment. This can help your dog know when you are talking to them, since they don’t have the understanding of language that we do.
Another theory is that dogs tilt their heads for the same reason we nod when someone is speaking. It’s their way of saying, “I’m listening. Go on”.
This theory notes that dogs who are less social don’t tilt. It seems confined to dogs who are engaged in interaction with their owner. In fact, the closer the connection between the owner and dog, and the greater social and emotional intelligence the dog possesses, the more likely they are to head tilt.
Positive reinforcement is another proposed reason that dogs tilt their head. Positive reinforcement is how we train dogs. When the dog performs the desired behavior, they get a reward.
Dogs have a strong associative memory. They quickly learn when they do something that pleases you, something good happens. Of course, they will then continue the behavior to get the reward. Rewards are not confined to treats, or even things that you intentionally train your dog to do.
This theory is not mutually exclusive with any of the theories listed above. A dog could initially tilt its head to hear or see us better, or as a confirmation they are listening.
However, when you see them tilting their head, you naturally find it adorable. You may laugh, smile, or talk to them in an excited voice. You may pet them, or pull them into your lap for cuddles. Without realizing it, you’ve just reinforced the behavior by rewarding them.
In some cases, positive reinforcement leads to undesirable behavior. If you pay attention to your dog each time they bark, they may bark more often to get your attention. When it comes to the head tilt though, owners are happy to see more of it.
Why else do dogs tilt their heads?
Abnormal head tilting can be caused by several medical disorders. If your dog frequently holds their head at a tilt or tilts their head unrelated to communication, there may be an underlying problem.
The vestibular system, in dogs and people, is responsible for keeping balance. If your vestibular system is off, you will have difficulty knowing where you are in space.
The central components of the system is in the brain. Peripheral components are located in the inner and middle ear.
If you have ever had an ear infection that affected your balance, you may have an idea what your dog is feeling. Symptoms of vestibular disease include head tilting, dizziness, loss of coordination, nausea, and vomiting. Other symptoms include moving in circles, frequently falling, and erratitc eye movements.
Periphereal Vestibular Disease
Peripheral Vestibular Disease means that the periphereal part of the vestibular system, the ears, is malfunctioning in some way.
The most common causes include middle or inner ear infection and idiopathic vestibular disease. Other causes include medication reactions, particularly to metronidazole. Head trauma and hypothyroidism can also cause vestibular disease.
Ear infections can occur in the outer or middle ear. 20% of dogs will experience some type of ear disease in their lives. The design of a dog’s ear makes them more prone to infection.
Outer ear infections will cause discomfort, swelling, and discharge. You may notice your dog pawing or scratching at their ear. Middle and inner ear infections are more problematic. In addition to the above symptoms, they can cause vestibular symptoms like head tilting and dizziness.
Ear trauma can also cause vestibular disease. If injury occurs to the ear, the vestibular system can malfunction. This can occur due to a fall, running into an object, or being hit by a car.
Polyps or tumors in the ear can also cause symptoms and cause problems with the vestibular system.
Hypothyroidism can also cause periphereal vestibular disease. The thyroid controls the dog’s metabolism. Hypothyroidism causes the metabolism to drop too low. This can cause fatigue, hair loss, and a dull coat. It can also affect the periphereal nervous system, or the nerves in the ears.
Central Vestibular Disease
Central vestibular disease occurs due to a problem with the vestibular center in the brain. It’s less common than periphereal vestibular disease.
The causes are often more serious, and include bleeding or infection in the brain and cancer. Head trauma that injures the brain and loss of blood flow due to bleeding or tumors can also cause central vestibular disease.
Idiopathic Vestibular Disease
Idiopathic vestibular disease occurs when no cause for the symptoms can be found. It typically occurs in older dogs, and is often called “old dog syndrome”. However, it can affect younger dogs as well. If the vet rules out all other causes, the dog has vestibular disease.
Should I do anything about my dog tilting their head?
If your dog is tilting his head when you are talking to them, then there’s nothing to worry about. If you want, you can simply encourage them to continue doing it by talking to them or petting them. However, if you notice your dog tilting their head frequently, or at odd times, they may have a medical condition.
When to Visit the Vet
You’ll need to visit the vet if your dog is tilting their head unrelated to communication. If you notice that they are displaying other symptoms, like loss of balance, nausea, vomitting, or disorientation, they’ll need to be evaluated.
What to Expect at the Vet
The first thing the vet will do is run tests to determine the cause of the head tilting. First, the vet will check for an ear infection with a physical exam. A physical exam also allows them to evaluate symptoms which can narrow down potential causes. These can include a mri of the ears and brain, and a cat scan. Many issues, including tumors and ear infections, can be discovered with these tests.
They may also check for viruses and infections in the brain. A cerebrospinal fluid analysis can identify inflammation or diseases in the brain.
Veterinary Treatment for Vestibular Disease
If your dog has vestibular disease, treatment will be two fold. If there’s an underlying cause, your vet will treat the cause. They will also treat the symptoms.
Anti-nausea medications are often given to control nausea and vomiting. Vomitting can cause dehydration. Mild dehydration can be treated with extra fluids, but severe dehydration requires IV fluids.
Antioxidants and Omega 3 fatty acids can support your dog’s body during the healing process.
Home Treatment for Vestibular Disease
If your dog is displaying signs of vestibular disease, it’s important to bring your dog to the vet. However, there are things you can do at home to help your dog if they have idiopathic vestibular disease or you just want to provide supportive care for your pet.
Keep their necessities nearby if they are having difficulty walking. Keep food and water nearby. You may need to place their bowls against the wall to keep them from sliding away.
It can be tempting to carry them everywhere when they are struggling to get around, but it’s not a good idea. Your dog needs time to heal and recalibrate their vestibular system. Unfortunately, they can’t do that if they aren’t walking themselves.
Keep their area as free of obstacles as possible. Stairs and other dangerous areas should be blocked off. If floors are slippery, consider putting a rug down. Keep items picked up off the floor so your dog doesn’t have to navigate around them.
Lastly, switch their collar for a harness. If your dog is having a particularly difficult time, you can provide a little extra balance and support by holding their harness or leash. It also prevents your dog from jerking their head while they are tied.