Scientists discover what's going on inside a dog's mind when they tilt their head
Research has shown that 'genius' dogs who can learn lots of instructions often tilt their head when they hear their owner's speak.
Some genius dogs can learn the names of over 100 toys, new research has found. Those that can pass the toy test – understanding the names of two or more of their favourite playthings and retrieving them on request – are so-called Gifted Word Learner dogs.
These gifted dogs have helped researchers to understand a behaviour that has never previously been studied: the head tilt.
Much like humans have a preference for one side of their body, dogs exhibit a preferred paw or nostril. These asymmetric behaviours include tilting the head, but until now, it's been unclear when and why it happens.
New research, published in the Animal Cognition journal, suggests that dogs tilt their head when they process something meaningful, or when they expect to be told something important.
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"There are some studies suggesting that tilting the head could be a health-related problem," said Dr Andrea Sommese, lead author of the new study and researcher at Eötvös Loránd University. "But it didn't seem likely, because we saw dogs doing it randomly and I'm pretty sure you've seen a dog tilting its head – it's very common behaviour!"
So, Sommese and the team at the Family Dog Project, a research centre studying the behaviour of dogs, set out to understand head tilting with a group of 'genius' dogs that they'd worked with on a previous study.
This involved 40 dogs and their owners undergoing three months of training to see if the dogs could learn the names of its toys.
"We asked each of the owners to play with the dogs using two toys, and to tell the dogs the names of the toys as much as possible. After this intensive three months' training, we saw 33 of the dogs weren't able to learn the difference between the two toys – we called these the 'typical' dogs.
"But the other dogs, during this time, they didn't just learn the two toys, they learned 10, 20, 30. Our so-called best dog knows the name of 160 toys or something."
There was a steep difference, Sommese explained. Either a dog learned a lot of different toys, or none. However, Sommese stressed that he's not saying dogs that can't learn toy names aren't clever in other ways.
"We think that learning words is like a talent. In humans there are people that are better at music or math or art – it seems that there is the same kind of thing going on for dogs. Some dogs are particularly skilled in this, but it doesn't mean that they're smarter. They just have one unique talent, as much as other dogs are better at sniffing or better at hunting."
After the experiment, the researchers noticed that the gifted dogs would tilt their head nearly every time their owner asked them to fetch a particular toy.
"Because we knew for sure that they know the name of some of their toys, we thought that it was something meaningful and important for the dog that made it tilt its head.
“It seemed to be as if the dog was saying, 'Okay, now I'm focused, I'm concentrated on the task.’”
The team initially thought it was to do with the dog's hearing, the way we might turn our head to face a person speaking in order to hear them better. But they quickly noticed that the dogs showed a preference for which side their head tilted, regardless of the position of the owner.
"It's not that typical dogs don't tilt their heads," Sommese explained. "I observed this behaviour with my own dog. It's just that we don't know what's meaningful for them and why."
The group of genius dogs present a unique opportunity for study, Sommese said. Though researchers know dogs process language in a similar way to humans, we don't really understand what language means for them.
"That's why we are so stoked to have these Gifted Word Learner dogs, because we are getting closer and closer to finding some answers."
- Want to know if your dog is a genius? Head to Genius Dog Challenge and share videos of your pup so that the team can confirm you have a Gifted Word Learner!
Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.