Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Black Lab dog with head tilt
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Have you ever seen your dog tilt his head to the side and wondered why? Head tilting is one of those things that we humans often find quite adorable. Is it normal for dogs to tilt their heads? In general, the occasional dog head cock is normal and harmless. However, sometimes a dog's head tilt can indicate a health problem. Learn how to tell the difference.

Normal Dog Head Tilt 

Puppies are especially known for tilting their heads, especially when they hear new or interesting words or sounds. They may also do this when they see something they find strange and fascinating. When a dog tilts his head at something, it's as if he is saying "huh?" or "what is that?" He will cock his head to one side momentarily, then return his head to normal position. He might alternate the tilt to either side. Though the behavior is most common in puppies, it is considered normal for dogs of all ages.

Head tilting behavior in dogs is not fully understood. We do know that people sometimes encourage this action with favorable responses. Our dogs learn that we like it and find it cute because we tend to smile and give them positive attention. Dogs will repeat the behavior and we continue to reinforce it, leading them to do it more often. In fact, you can even train your dog to tilt his head on cue.

There are theories that, by tilting his head, the dog is trying to get his ears at a different angle to hear something or changing the position of his eyes to see better. He might be trying to hear where a sound is coming from or look at something from a slightly different angle. One brief study indicates that dogs may tilt their heads in an effort to better see our facial expressions past the visual obstructions of their muzzles.

Puppies may tilt their heads more often than adult dogs because so many of the sights and sounds around them are new. Try saying a funny word to your puppy or making a silly sound. There's a good chance you will get a head tilt from him.

While these theories make sense, we may never know for certain why dogs tilt their heads. What we do know is that this type of behavior is common, normal, and adorable!

When a Head Tilt Indicates a Health Problem

Your dog may not be tilting his head as a response to a sound or sight. Unfortunately, a head tilt can sometimes be a sign of a serious health problem. In most cases, health-related head tilting is involuntary. The head tilt will likely occur constantly. This differs from the normal head tilt, which is intermittent and occurs in response to stimuli. An abnormal head tilt may be accompanied by other signs of illness such as involuntary eye movement (nystagmus), dizziness, drunken gait (ataxia), weakness, nausea, and/or lethargy.

An abnormal head tilt is typically caused by some kind of vestibular dysfunction. Located in the middle/inner ear and brain stem, the vestibular system is responsible for balance and coordination. Inflammation of the ear or problems in the brain can affect the nerves and structures of the vestibular system. This inflammation can lead to head tilt and other signs of vertigo. Several different health problems can disrupt the vestibular system, some more common than others.

It's important not to ignore this type of head tilt because the underlying problem may become worse over time and cause permanent damage. Contact your veterinarian right away if you notice a head tilt in your dog that seems abnormal.