Dogs possess an almost infinite number of lovable characteristics and behaviors, and their peculiar head tilt in response to human voices is no exception. Despite our intimate association with canines, little research on their head-cocking behavior has been conducted. According to a new report published in Animal Cognition, scientists discovered a possible link between dogs’ memory and head tilt while studying their ability to remember words.
“We investigated the frequency and direction of this behavior in response to a specific human verbal vocalization,” explains Andrea Sommese, a researcher in animal science at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University. “We did so after realizing that it often happened when the dogs were listening to their owners.”
The Hungarian researchers examined the head tilt habits of “gifted” and “typical” canines in the study. The pet owners instructed their dogs to get a particular toy from another room by giving them commands with toy names, such as “Bring rope!” While most dogs struggle to remember the names of only two toys, the seven “gifted” canines, all border collies, could recall at least ten different toy names taught to them by researchers.
The researchers discovered that dogs who excelled at toy recall frequently cocked their heads in response to a command. When they compared the puppy’s response to an owner’s command, they discovered that talented dogs tilted their heads 43% of the time, while normal dogs tilted their heads only 2% of the time. According to the researchers, a pup’s charming head tilt could be a sign of attention or even of linking a name to a visual image in their head.
Additionally, researchers discovered that dogs generally cock their heads in the same direction regardless of their owner’s position. The so-called “right-tilters” and “left-tilters” may simply be a question of personal preference, something scientists intend to study further. Earlier research has discovered that the right half of dogs’ brains are more active when it comes to absorbing good words and praise, as Alexis Nedd of Mashable notes, suggesting that this could play a part in tilt direction.
“The next step is asking more questions to get at what the head tilt really means,” said Monique Udell, a human-animal interaction researcher at Oregon State University who was not involved in the study. “Can we use head tilting to predict word-learning aptitude, or attention, or memory?”
Recent research provides critical insights into the relationship between animal cognition and behavior. However, the study’s authors concur that research is still in its infancy. For the time being, dog owners can take solace in the fact that their pup’s head tilt may be an adorable attempt to communicate with humans.