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Why do dogs tilt their heads? Study aims to find out

The researchers who are studying why dogs move their heads in this way say the findings, so far, are the first steps at learning secrets of this adorable behavior.

Why do dogs tilt their heads in the adorable way they do? Are they responding to a particular tone of voice, or something specific a human is saying? An apparent first-of-its kind study has taken an early step towards trying to figure it out.

In a study from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, some dogs that are able to learn the names of their toys may tilt their head when they hear their owners request the toy.

"We investigated the frequency and direction of this behavior in response to a specific human verbal vocalization: when the owner asks the dog to bring a toy by saying its name," said Dr. Andrea Sommese, a lead researcher on the study, in a statement from the university. "We did so after realizing that it often happened when the dogs were listening to their owners."

Forty dogs were followed in the study, with researchers classifying them into two groups. Seven dogs who were able to learn the names of multiple toys were called Gifted Word Learner (GWL) dogs. The other 33 dogs in the study, who could not learn the names of the toys, apart from just two of them, were called typical dogs.

"The Gifted dogs very often tilted their head upon hearing the owner’s request for a named toy, while typical dogs rarely did," the university said.

Credit: Mary Swift - stock.adobe.com

In further experiments of the GWL dogs lasting 24 months, researchers said the side toward which dogs tilted their heads was stable.

“It seems that there is a relationship between success in retrieving a named toy and frequent head tilts upon hearing its name," the university said.

The authors caution it's too early to come to broad conclusions and that more research is needed.

“It is important to notice that this study only investigated head tilts during a very specific dog-owner communicative interaction: when the owner asks the dog to fetch a named toy," said researcher Andrea Temesi. "Hence, it is important to refrain from thinking that only Gifted Word Learner dogs tilt their heads in other situations not tested in this study."

They also said that all the GWL dogs were border collies, but so were the majority of the typical dogs, so it shouldn't be assumed the results of this study are related only to that breed.

The study is published in the journal Animal Cognition, a peer reviewed publication.