Science can now explain why dogs tilt their heads
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A scientific study has revealed why dogs tilt their adorable little heads to one side.
It's one of the most endearing sights you can ever see, with people so enamoured with dogs tilting their heads there's even a whole YouTube video with sounds to encourage such movement.
It makes you want to scream in excitement: 'It's so fluffy I wanna die' like Agnes from Despicable Me and spurs on teeth-gritting cute aggression, but why do dogs actually do it? Prepare to squeak back in delight:
Postdoctoral fellow at Family Dog Project Andrea Sommese led a team of researchers in two correlating studies looking into why dogs tilt their heads.
The first, titled 'Word learning dogs (Canis familiaris) provide an animal model for studying exceptional performance' was published on 7 July, 2021 in Scientific Reports and the second, titled, 'An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs' was published 26 October, 2021.
Within the studies, scientists set out to test whether dogs - like 'several vertebrates (e.g. fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals) process sensory information asymmetrically'.
A total of 40 dogs - 33 'normal' family dogs and seven 'gifted' (already skilled in learning object names) - were observed during an 'object-label knowledge test'. The test saw humans train their dog to fetch a particular toy with a particular name attached to it.
Prior to performing the test, the group of scientists expected 'if head-tilting is related to processing meaningful or relevant auditory stimuli, dogs that learn object labels would tilt their heads more frequently upon hearing the toy’s name than typical dog'.
"Dogs displaying a consistent preference for one side over time would suggest asymmetric processing of the verbal stimuli (Wells et al. 2018)," the study explains. "Alternatively, the lack of a population-level bias would support that head-tilting represents a habitual, idiosyncratic behaviour related to attention."
But did their theory prove to be correct?
The test revealed the already skilled dogs 'tilted the head significantly more than typical dogs' and were able to learn more than 10 names of different toys in three months. In the same three months, the 33 'normal' dogs weren't able to learn the name of any new toys. However, all dogs cocked their heads at some point during the tests.
The Animal Cognition study revealed when dogs were asked to retrieve a toy by name, the 'gifted' dogs tilted their heads 43 percent of the time compared to two percent of the 'normal' dogs.
This proved 'dogs tilt their heads in a number of situations' but 'only when they hear something that is very relevant to them,' Sommese said.
The researcher continues: "It seems that this behaviour is strongly associated with sound perception, and it might be something they do when they're trying to listen more closely, or maybe when they are a bit confused, just like humans do."
The study also showed the dogs had a favourite side to tilt their heads to - but that it differed from dog to dog - such as humans using a particular hand to write with.
The final results ultimately showed 'only dogs that had learned the name of the objects tilted their heads frequently'.
The study concludes: "Thus, we suggest a relationship between head-tilting and processing relevant, meaningful stimuli."
In the future, researchers hope to look further into how head-tilting may be impacted by different contexts or other sounds.
Oregon State University human-animal interaction researcher who wasn't involved in the studies, Monique Udell, told Live Science: "Studies like this one are important because they remind us that we, as humans, also have a lot to learn about what a dog's body language is communicating to us."