A Tilt of the Head

Head-tilting in dogs.

There have been two recent articles on head-tilting in dogs. One was published by Springer Link and was a scientific report; the Abstract as follows:

Little is known about head-tilts in dogs. Based on previous investigations on the head turning and the lateralised brain pattern of human speech processing in dogs, we hypothesised that head-tilts may be related to increased attention and could be explained by lateralised mental functions. We observed 40 dogs during object-label knowledge tests and analysed head-tilts occurring while listening to humans requesting verbally to fetch a familiar toy. Our results indicate that only dogs that had learned the name of the objects tilted their heads frequently. Besides, the side of the tilt was stable across several months and tests. Thus, we suggest a relationship between head-tilting and processing relevant, meaningful stimuli.

The other report was a more easy read, so to speak, and is from Treehugger and that is the one that I shall share with you.

ooOOoo

Why Brilliant Dogs Tilt Their Heads.

They’re processing relevant information.

By Mary Jo DiLonardo

Mary Jo DiLonardo

Published November 12, 2021

Tetra Images – Jessica Peterson / Getty Images

Ask your dog a question, and there’s a good chance he’ll tilt his head as he ponders his response.

The head tilt is a cute canine maneuver that gives the impression your pup is paying attention to you. But there’s been little scientific research analyzing the behavior.

In a new study of “gifted” dogs, researchers found that dogs that can easily learn the names of their toys tilt their heads when their owners ask them to fetch a specific toy. And they typically tilt their heads consistently to the same side.1

Data was collected during the Genius Dog Challenge, a series of experiments that were broadcast on social media, showing dogs retrieving their toys by name. The information was also collected during an earlier study that researched how some dogs are able to learn the names of many of their toys.2

These dogs were dubbed “gifted word learners” by researchers.

“We started studying this phenomenon after we realised that all of us observed this behaviour very often when we were testing the gifted word learner (GWL) dogs,” lead researcher Andrea Sommese, from the Family Dog Project at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, tells Treehugger. 

“It’s such a cute, common behaviour but we didn’t know why our dogs were doing it and most of all, why so often!”

Gifted Learners 

For their work, researchers searched globally for two years, looking for dogs that had the ability to quickly memorize the names of their toys. They also created the Genius Dog Challenge, a research project and social media campaign, to find even more brilliant pups.3

They found six border collies that live in different countries, who all learned toy names just while playing with their owners. For the challenge, these gifted word learners had a week to learn the names of six toys. During the second stage, they had a week to try to learn the names of a dozen toys.4

“In all our experiments we found that the GWL dogs were tilting the head very often. It wasn’t just during the challenge but also when we were testing them every month,” Sommese says.

“We believe that there is a relationship between head tilting and processing relevant, and meaningful stimuli as our GWL dogs only showed this behaviour during the test when their owners were saying the name of a toy.”

In one experiment, researchers observed 40 dogs for three months as they attempted to learn the names of two new toys. The dogs sat or stood in front of their owners when they were asked to fetch one of the toys by pronouncing its name. (For example, “bring rope!”) The dogs would then go to another room and attempt to retrieve the correct toy.1

The researchers found that the gifted word learner dogs tilted their heads 43% of the time versus the typical dogs that only tilted in 2% of trials.1

The results were published in the journal Animal Cognition.

Choosing Sides

Dogs, horses, and other animals—including humans—show asymmetry in the way they perceive the world around them. They prefer one ear, eye, hand (or paw) over the other when interacting with the environment.5

“A typical way to show asymmetry, especially in humans, is handedness. Most of us are right-handed but there are still left-handed people around. The same can happen to animals,” Sommese says.

“Of course, it doesn’t always have to be a ‘hand’ or a paw in their case, it can be an eye or an ear. For instance, in dogs, even the inclination their tails have when they’re wagging is a sign of asymmetrical behaviour.”

In the study, researchers found that the dogs also showed asymmetry, nearly always tilting their heads to the same side.1

What About Typical Dogs?

Researchers say the findings suggest there’s a connection between head tilting and processing relevant and meaningful stimuli.5

But their results are limited because they only studied these brilliant pups who have learned toy names.

“Even if typical dogs are not able to learn the names of many toys as we showed with our previous study, typical dogs still tilt their head,” Sommese says. “It seems that even in them this might be in response to meaningful stimuli—but we don’t know what meaningful means for a typical dog just yet.”

Article Sources

  1. Sommese, Andrea, et al. “An Exploratory Analysis of Head-Tilting in Dogs.” Animal Cognition, 2021, doi:10.1007/s10071-021-01571-8
  2. Talk-To-Tilt: Head Tilting In Dogs.” ELTE Institute of Biology, 2021.
  3. Shany Dror, from the Family Dog Project, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest
  4. The Challenge.” Genius Dog Challenge.
  5. lead researcher Andrea Sommese, from the Family Dog Project at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest

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Now I see The Smithsonian magazine has jumped on the bandwagon. Here is a small piece from their article:

“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?”

But The Smithsonian has to be thanked for mentioning Monique Udell because one can quickly find her details:

Monique Udell

Dr. Udell is the Director of the Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory and teaches courses on Animal Behavior & Cognition, Applied Animal Behavior, Animal Learning, Behavior Modification and Enrichment within the Department of Animal & Rangeland Sciences at OSU.

Her research interests include:

  • Human-animal interactions & bonding, including animal training and animal assisted intervention programs aimed at improving the lives of humans and animals through mutually beneficial interactions.
  • Lifetime and evolutionary factors influencing the social development and wellbeing of canines (dogs and wolves), domestic cats, and other captive and domesticated species.
  • Evaluating and improving the welfare of animals living as companion, working, or production animals.

More details can be found at the Human-Animal Interaction lab website: TheHumanAnimalBond.com

If anyone wants to contact her then her email address is: monique.udell@oregonstate.edu

I think I will simply because I would like to know more about her work!

13 thoughts on “A Tilt of the Head

    1. Well that’s a natural response from us adults, Monika, but the truth is that it is more complicated than that, as the article sets out. But not one of our six dogs tilts their head and Jean and I wonder if it is because of the number around the house. Haven’t heard back from the Professor as that is someone I would ask.

      Liked by 1 person

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