If you’re a dog parent, you probably enjoy when your canine friend turns his head first one way and then the other as if to say, “What are you doing?” or “What did you just say?”.
Surprisingly, scientists have never studied this funny maneuver until now. Researchers in Budapest, Hungary, recently studied the phenomenon in depth to find out which dogs do it and what the reasons might be.
The study focused on several dogs that could remember the names of at least 10 toys. These talented pups are known as “gifted word writers.” – are in fact geniuses among dogs. In the experiment, all seven of the particularly smart dogs were Border Collies, which have long been considered one of the most intelligent dog breeds. However, the researchers found that even most Border Collies are unable to learn many toy names, while some dogs of other breeds can.
How they conducted the study
The researchers observed 40 dogs for several months, testing their knowledge of object names and then asking them to retrieve a familiar toy from people.
Of the dogs the researchers studied, 33 were typical toy-motivated domestic dogs, and the other seven were intelligent Border Collies. All of the gifted word learners were able to remember at least 10 toys whose names they learned, while the other dogs could only match a few names.
In the first part of the study, the dog sat in front of the owner, who asked the dog to fetch one of the toys located in another room (“Bring the rope!”), and the dog would fetch the toy and bring it back.
The researchers paid attention to whether the dog tilted its head to the left or right while standing in front of its owner and giving the command.
In the second part of the study, the researchers recorded only the gifted puppies. This time they used all the new toys the dogs had learned, as many as 13 of them. The owner randomly asked for each toy twice. A few months later, the test was repeated with 18 new toys that the dogs had learned to recognize.
The results showed that only the dogs that had learned the names of the objects often tilted their heads. From this, the researchers concluded that dogs who tilt their heads are processing relevant, meaningful information, such as when they hear keywords they know and are attentive. Tilting may also mean that the dog is trying to remember what a toy looks like, the researchers said.
The researchers found that gifted dogs tilted their heads significantly more often than normal dogs when looking at their owner during a conversation. When asked to retrieve a toy, gifted dogs tilted their heads 43% of the time on dozens of trials. Typical dogs tilted their heads only 2% of the time, they report in the journal Animal Cognition.
Why do dogs favor one side over the other
The study noted that many animals, including fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals, process sensory information asymmetrically, that is, they use either the left or right hemisphere of the brain. A previous study showed that dogs always turn their heads slightly to the left when they hear a familiar command. They tend to turn to the right when their owners praise them. Dogs also show this asymmetry in other ways, such as wagging their tails or putting one paw in front of the other.
This may explain why dogs have a preference for the left or right side when they tilt their heads. In experiments, some dogs tilted their heads only to the left, others only to the right, and some did both.
The researchers came to the expected conclusion that puppy wiggling increases concentration and memory in our furry friends.
The experiment was limited in scope, but the researchers hope to conduct further studies with non-breed dogs to find out what sounds might be important and elicit the same behavior.
Until then, pet owners can assume that when their dog tilts its head to the side, it is probably intelligent and trying to understand what you are doing or saying. And that you have a strong bond with your four-legged friend because he is so interested that he wants to know what you are saying. So the “aha” feeling you get when they display this adorable behavior is completely justified.