The Famous Pug Head Tilt: Here’s Why They Do It!


Ever notice your pug cocking its head to the side in reaction to specific sounds or words? I’m sure you have! The famous pug head tilt has made waves across the internet and has even amassed millions of views on YouTube. But what is the science behind a pug’s head tilt? I decided to find out.

There are numerous theories as to why a pug may tilt their heads. Some of these include:

  • They’re trying to hear better, and tilting the head can help them detect the direction and distance of a sound more accurately.
  • They’re trying to process the information and better understand us.
  • So they have better vision to read our facial expressions and body language.
  • It may be due to anatomical reasons whereby listening and body language are synced within their brain structure.
  • Behavioral – it may be learned as they try to empathize with us.

With so many vastly different theories by experts in the field, it is important to recognize that they’re not just trying to be cute. Understanding why your pug is tilting its head can help you better communicate and respond to them in various situations.

Are They Trying To Hear Us Better?

It is believed by some that tilting their heads can allow dogs to better determine where the sound is coming from. When pugs alter their ear position, they’re moving their droopy ear flaps (pinna) out of the way as it can serve as a barrier to sound transmission (Horowitz, 2012). While they can hear an incredible range of frequencies, they can’t pinpoint the location and distance of the noise as well as humans can. A simple change in head position can help calculate some extremely minuscule differences and better process certain sensory information.

Next time you voice a command or make a sound that gets a reaction out of your pug, notice your position in relation to your dog. If you’re behind them, they may turn around before cocking their head to the side. If an intriguing sound is coming from the front, they may tilt their head towards the position of it. Finally, if it comes from the side, they may not tilt or react at all as they’re in the most optimal position to pick up these sounds.

They’re Trying To Process The Information Better

Whilst it is a common belief that dogs will cock their heads to the side in order to pinpoint the location of specific noises, it does tend to happen most when we’re standing directly in front of them. For that reason, Dr. Jill Goldman believes that it’s about frequencies and inflections rather than localization of sounds being the goal. She adds, “I do believe it is to get refinement on what is being said, rather than where it is coming from.” The dog is probably trying to gather or focus on the information (Goldman, n.d.).

This can be supported up by a new study by Hungarian researchers of the MTA-ELTE ‘Lendület’ Neuroethology of Communication Research Group at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest measuring brain activity with non-invasive electroencephalography (EEG) on awake dogs. Despite dogs having excellent auditory capacities, they have difficulty differentiating between words that differ by one speech sound (e.g. dog vs dig). This might explain why dogs tend to recognize a low number of words throughout their lifetime (Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, 2020).

Analysis of the electric brain activity helped emphasize patterns whereby a dog’s brain was closer to that of a 14-month human infant. This revelation highlights the fact that when listening to words, dogs might not attend to all details of speech. Henceforth, this could be the reason for the famous pug head tilt.

Head Tilting For Improved Vision

While this doesn’t exactly apply to pugs, due to the breed being categorized as brachycephalic, it is still important to cover all hypothesises surrounding a dog’s head tilt. A study was conducted by Dr. Stanley Corren where he was able to conduce that dogs, primarily breeds with longer snouts, cocked their head to the side in order to improve their vision. It’s believed that bigger muzzled dogs had difficulty viewing and reading people’s faces, so tilting their head helped shift their snouts out of the way. This allows them to then read our facial expressions, body language, and eye movements.

Adding to Coren’s hypothesis, dogs are widely believed to be the only non-primate animal to look people directly in the eyes. Usually, this is an indication of love and empathy, and a result of humans and dogs having lived together for 30,000 years. In fact, the “love hormone” oxytocin releases when humans and dogs stare at each other. It’s no wonder why dogs are known as “man’s best friend”.

To test this theory, a survey was conducted with 582 participants. 396 had medium-longer snouts, while 186 were flat-faced like the pug. 71% of bigger muzzled dogs were reported to have cocked their head when spoken to, while only 52% of brachycephalic breeds reported regular head tilting (Coren, 2013).

This study by Corren asks the right questions, and I believe we’re on the right path to finding out why dogs cock their heads. However, more than half of the flat-faced dogs like the pug recorded regular head tilts. There may be more to it than visibility and simple snout issues, but a credible theory nonetheless.

Other Factors To Consider: Anatomical, Behavioral, Medical

Another take on the head tilting subject is from renowned dog trainer Steven Lindsay. He believes that a region in the brain called the nucleus ambiguus not only helps a dog perceive sounds but it also control’s their head movement. That being said, if true, it means that our pups can’t help but to react to sound with body (head) movements (Lindsay, 2009).

On the behavioral side of things, there are certain phrases that catches a reactionary head tilt from our pups. Some of these include “want to go on a walk?”, “do you want a treat?”, and “do you want to play?”. Usually, positive reinforcement like play-time, treats, and praises tend to follow these specific phrases. Our response to the cuteness encourages repetition. In saying that, it’s possible that we taught our dogs to react like that because our canine friends usually repeat behaviors that are rewarded.

Finally, if your pug is constantly cocking its head to the side, but it doesn’t seem to be associated with any form of communication, it may indicate a medical issue. Pugs are prone to ear infections and may react to the itching and pain with an occasional head tilt. Their floppy ears cause moisture to be more easily trapped in the ear canals compared to dogs with pointier ears. Check for a build-up of excessive wax, redness, and swelling in the ear by lifting their ear flaps. Seek medical attention from a vet as they’ll help clean it out and prescribe treatment accordingly.

Related Questions

Do dogs tilt their head when confused? No, it may look like they’re confused, but the answer will be related to one of the above reasons. Whether that would be trying to hear us better, processing information, increasing vision, behavioral, or anatomical.

What does it mean when your pug stares at you? Our canine friends will stare at their owners to express love and affection.

Why do pugs snort? Pugs snort in an attempt to clear their respiratory tract of any irritating substances, including fluid and debris. An overweight pug will snort more frequently as they can suffer from upper airway obstructions and irritations.

References

Coren, S., 2013. Why Dogs May Tilt Their Heads When You Talk to Them.
[Accessed 10 December 2020].

Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, 2020. DOGS MAY NEVER LEARN THAT EVERY SOUND OF A WORD MATTERS. [Accessed 10 December 2020].

Goldman, J., n.d. Why do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?.
[Accessed 10 December 2020].

Horowitz, A., 2012. Inside Of A Dog: What they See, Smell and Know. s.l.:Simon & Schuster UK.

Lindsay, S., 2009. Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, Procedures and Protocols. 1st edition ed. s.l.:iley-Blackwell.

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