Dogs that tilt their heads aren’t just adorable: they’re super smart

Credit: Cooper Photo.

If your pet canine tilts its head when hearing its name, congratulations: that dog may be a genius. I’m not making this up. A new study found that the seemingly perplexing head tilt isn’t a sign of confusion as we may be led to believe. Instead, it’s actually a sign that the dog is processing the meaning of words like oral commands and making connections. Dogs that tilted their heads most often were also the best performing at successfully responding to commands, some of them quite complex.

Dr. Andrea Sommese, the lead author of the study and a researcher at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, was inspired to conduct this research after being involved in the Genius Dog Challenge, a live broadcasted series that features very talented dogs. During the broadcasts, some of the gifted dogs were very good at learning the names of a wide variety of toys. When the name of the toys was uttered by their owners, the dogs often tilted their heads.

Head tilting, as well as tail wagging, nostril sniffing, and pointing one of the ears, is a type of asymmetrical movement typical for canines that shows the animal prefers to use one of its body parts over others when interacting with the environment.

“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,” Sommese said in a statement.

Sommese and colleagues carefully analyzed all the broadcasts from the Genius Dog Challenge, which involved 40 dogs of various breeds. The owners were asked to teach their pets the names of two toys and test how well they were at the task once a month for three months. The test was simple: the dog had to fetch the correct toy when its name was uttered from an adjacent room.

Most of the dogs, however, failed at this task. Even two toy names proved too much. However, all seven border collies aced the test flawlessly. Collies are regarded as one of the most intelligent dog breeds in the world, and this experiment validated their cognitive prowess with the Hungarian researchers calling them “gifted word learners”.

Throughout the experiment, the scientists recorded the presence or absence of head-tilts when the owners would say the name of the toy. The typical dogs rarely tilted their heads while the gifted dogs more often than not tilted their heads upon hearing the fetch command.

In fact, the difference was striking. The gifted learners tilted their heads 43% of the time while the other 33 dogs did so just 2% of the time. That doesn’t sound like a coincidence, and the researchers seem to concur.

“It seems that there is a relationship between success in retrieving a named toy and frequent head tilts upon hearing its name. That is why we suggest an association between head-tilting and processing relevant and meaningful stimuli” clarifies Shany Dror, co-author of the study. 

However, these findings don’t necessarily mean your pooch is intellectually challenged just because they’re missing the head tilt.

“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” adds Andrea Temesi, another researcher working on the project. 

The researchers continued to work just with the collies in a series of other, more challenging experiments. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they collected the data remotely with the help of the owners, who cooperated and installed two cameras connected to a livestream software that monitored both the dogs’ and their owners’ behaviors.

In the new experiment, the collies were challenged with learning the names of 12 new toys and had only a week to do so. They were then tested by fetching the correct toy out of the bunch one month and then two months later.

The collies performed wonderfully, retrieving the correct toy 86% of the time. One of the collies, named Whisky, was particularly gifted bringing back the correct toy 54 out of 59 times. One month later, the retrieval rate dropped to 61%. Two months later it dropped to 57%, which isn’t bad at all considering the dogs lost their training.

Credit: Helge O. Svela.

Once again, the dogs tilted their heads when they heard the name of the toys called out by the owners. Every dog tended to tilt their heads to just one side or the other fairly consistently. For the researchers, this is seen as yet another piece of evidence that dogs engage in this behavior when they’re concentrating on a cognitive task.

Learning and remembering object names is not exclusive to collies, though. After the study ended, the researchers discovered that canines of other breeds are also adept at learning new words. These include a German shepherd, a Pekingese, a mini Australian shepherd, and a few dogs of mixed breeds.

“What we tested is a very specific skill: the capacity to learn object names,” Dror told NBC News.

“All dogs, however, are good at understanding their humans,” she said. “They do so by being able to read even the very subtle movements we make and learning in what context we do what. They are fine tuned to all our activities and can learn a lot by observing us.”

The findings appeared in the journal Animal Cognition.

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