Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Black Lab dog with head tilt
Cheryl Maeder/UpperCut Images/Getty Images

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 consider a quintessential and cute dog behavior. Is it normal? In general, the occasional dog head cock is normal and harmless. However, sometimes a dog's head tilt can indicate a health problem. Here's how to tell the difference.

Normal Dog Head Tilt 

Puppies are especially known for tilting their heads when they hear a new and interesting word or sound.

They may also do this when they see something they find strange and fascinating. When a dog tilts his head at a sound or sight, it almost seems 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 in dogs of all ages.

Head tilting behavior in dogs is not fully understood. We know that we sometimes encourage it with our favorable responses. Our dogs learn that we like it, we find it cute, we give them attention, etc. They repeat the behavior, we reinforce it, and so on. 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 head at a better angle to hear and/or see something. 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. These theories make a lot of sense, but we may never know for certain why dogs tilt their heads. We do know that this type of behavior is relatively common, basically normal and seriously 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. Generally, when the head tilt is a sign of a health problem, the dog's head will be involuntarily tilted. The head tilt will typically be constant (whereas the normal head tilt is intermittent). It may be accompanied by other signs of illness.

This type of head tilt is usually caused by some kind of disturbance in vestibular function. Located in the middle/inner ear, the vestibular system is responsible for balance and coordination. Inflammation of the ear or problems in the brain can affect the nerves and structures in the vestibular system. This can lead to head tilt, nystagmus, ataxia, nausea/vomiting, and other signs of vertigo. The following health problems may disrupt the vestibular system:

It's important not to ignore this type of head tilt as 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.