Every dog owner is familiar with the cute, inquisitive head tilt commonly used by our canine friends. Generally, this form of body language is associated with interest or confusion, but a new study has associated the behavior with a meaningful stimulus such as learning the name of a toy.
Researchers at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest have been collecting data during the Genius Dog Challenge, a series of experiments that were broadcasted live across social media, in addition to a previous study investigating the talent of dogs.
The researchers found that when dogs learn the names of their favorite toys, they often tilt their heads when their owner requests it from them. The data also shows consistency on which side a dog will tilt its head toward.
Humans and other animals often present asymmetry in the way that they perceive and move through an environment with their senses. For example, humans are generally right-handed, or prefer one eye or ear to another. In dogs, this is often found in tail wagging, paw preference, or sniffing through a favorable nostril. The asymmetrical head tilt is a further example of this phenomenon.
“Tilting the head is yet another asymmetrical movement in dogs, but it had never been studied. We investigated the frequency and direction of this behavior in response to a specific human verbal vocalization: when the owner asks the dog to bring a toy by saying its name. We did so after realizing that it often happened when the dogs were listening to their owners,” explained Dr. Andrea Sommese, lead researcher for the study.
Data from a previous study showed that not every dog was able to learn the names of its toys over three months of intensive training. However, some were able to learn multiple names without much effort, receiving the label of “Gifted Word Learner” dogs. Out of the 40 dogs studied, 33 were deemed as “typical” and the remaining seven as Gifted Word Learners.
The gifted dogs regularly tilted their heads upon hearing the name of a toy, and the side of the tilt was consistent across experiments taking place over two years. As a result, the researchers have hypothesized that there is an association between head-tilting and the processing of meaningful stimuli.
“It is important to notice that this study only investigated head tilts during a very specific dog-owner communicative interaction: when the owner asks the dog to fetch a named toy. Hence, it is important to refrain from thinking that only Gifted Word Learner dogs tilt their heads in other situations not tested in this study,” said study co-author Andrea Temesi.
The research is published in the journal Animal Cognition.