Dogs have a seemingly endless list of endearing traits and behaviors, and their curious head tilt at the sound of human voices is no exception. Despite our close relationship with canines, little research has been done into their head-cocking behavior. While conducting a study on dogs’ ability to learn words, scientists stumbled upon a potential link between dogs’ memory and their head tilt, according to a new paper published in Animal Cognition.
“We investigated the frequency and direction of this behavior in response to a specific human verbal vocalization,” says study author Andrea Sommese, an animal science researcher at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. “We did so after realizing that it often happened when the dogs were listening to their owners.”
In the study, the Hungarian researchers looked at the head tilt patterns of both “gifted” and “typical” dogs. Owners asked their pups to fetch a specific toy from another room after being prompted with the toy’s name—a command like, “Bring rope!” for example. While most dogs struggle to memorize the name of just two toys, the seven “gifted” dogs—all of which were border collies—could remember at least ten different toy names they’d be taught by researchers.
The team found that dogs that were particularly good at toy recall tilted their heads when hearing a command more often than dogs who weren’t as skilled. When they compared the pooch’s response to a command from their owner, gifted dogs cocked their heads 43 percent of the time, while typical dogs did so just 2 percent of the time. It’s possible, scientists concluded, that a pup’s endearing head tilt may be a sign of paying attention or even matching a name to a visual image in their head.
Researchers also discovered that dogs usually cock their head in the same direction regardless of where the owner was standing. The so-called “right-tilters” and “left-tilters” may be a matter of individual preference—something scientists say they want to investigate further. Earlier studies have found the right side of dogs’ brains to be more active in processing positive words and praise, reports Alexis Nedd for Mashable, which could play a role in tilt direction.
“The next step is asking more questions to get at what the head tilt really means,” says Monique Udell, a human-animal interaction researcher at Oregon State University who wasn’t involved in the work, to Rachel Fritts of Science. “Can we use head tilting to predict word-learning aptitude, or attention, or memory?”
The recent work offers important clues about the connection between animal cognition and behavior, but the study authors agree research is still in the early stages. For now, dog owners can take comfort in knowing their pup’s head tilt may be an adorable attempt to better understand us.