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Dogs tilt their heads when concentrating and remembering information

  • Head tilting is common in some dogs, but scientists had not yet studied the reason for this behavior.
  • New research suggests that border collies tilt their heads when focusing on a task or recalling information.

Sometimes when we talk to our canine companions they adorably tilt their heads to one side.

While a dog’s questioning head might suggest disbelief or confusion, the gesture could actually be a sign of increased focus and attention, according to a study published last week.

Researchers studied how well 40 dogs of different breeds could memorize the names of different toys, and then recall that information in order to retrieve specific toys in response to orders from their owners. Most of the puppies were not able to learn the names of the toys, but seven border collies showed remarkable aptitude for the task.

Scientists considered this group to be “gifted word learners” and found that the Seven Collies had something in common: They all tilted their heads much more frequently than their non-gifted counterparts after hearing a command.

The data showed that the gifted learners nodded 43% of the time, while the other 33 dogs did the gesture only 2% of the time.

“There appears to be a relationship between success in retrieving a named toy and frequent tilts of the head upon hearing its name,” said Shany Dror, researcher in animal cognition at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary and co-author of the study. in a press release. “This is why we suggest an association between tilting the head and processing relevant and meaningful stimuli.”

This is the first study to examine head tilting behavior in dogs, according to the study authors.

Dogs can match a sound to an associated image in their head

border collie head tilt

A border collie on a pile of toys.


Cooper photo



In the first of three experiments described in the study, researchers asked 40 dog owners to test their pets once a month for three months. Each owner taught their dog the names of two toys, then asked the animal to look for one in an adjacent room. The toys remained the same throughout the three months.

Only the seven collies able to learn the names of toys (gifted learners) were included in the next experiment, although one of them died before the start. In this second experience, the owners tested the remaining six dogs the same way for three months, but with up to 13 toys.

One of the collies, Whiskey, brought back the right toy 54 times out of 59. Two others were successful more than 90% of the time. The other three had success rates between 57% and 75%.

Then in a third experience, the six gifted puppies were shown to learn 12 new toy names in a week, and then remember those names for at least two months.

“We know that dogs can easily learn words related to actions, such as ‘sit’ or ‘lie down’. But very few dogs can learn the names of objects,” Dror said.

Only gifted dogs who performed well on toy retrieval tasks consistently nodded after hearing a verbal command. This led Dror’s team to conclude that the gesture is linked to the Collies’ attempts to analyze the meaning of a word. The tilt could indicate that the Collies are mentally associating a toy name they hear with a visual image stored in their memories.

Collies prefer to tilt to one side or the other

Pug head tilt

A young pug.

Getty Images


Similar to how humans are right-handed or left-handed, gifted collies also tended to tilt their heads to one side or the other. Their preferred side remained the same over the three experiments, and the position of the dog owners in front of them did not influence the direction of the tilt.

“If a dog was on the left, it would stay on the left”, Andrea Sommese, co-author and colleague of Dror, says Science.

For researchers, this consistency may be further evidence that dogs tilt their heads when paying close attention to a task.

border collie

Bracken and Sky the Border Collies enjoy the Family Pet Show in Manchester, England on July 21, 2019.

Shirlaine Forrest / Getty


Although the study only looked at gifted border collies, the authors suggested that a talent for learning and remembering object names is not unique to this breed.

Dror said his group also observed the skill of a German Shepherd, a Pekingese and a mini Australian Shepherd. A study from the beginning of the year also identified a Yorkshire Terrier who rivaled the success of Whiskey.


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