Of all the impossibly adorable things dogs do, arguably the most adorable is the head tilt. You know the one. You say a particular word or make a certain noise, and your pooch immediately cocks her head to one side while looking intently at you. In fact, this move is so dang cute that once it happens, you’re likely to repeat whatever it was you said, or your tone of voice, over and over (and over) hoping to see it happen again!
Certain Dogs Are ‘Gifted Word Learners’
A new study of dogs who are able to quickly memorize multiple toy names, aka “gifted” canines, finds that they often tilt their heads before correctly retrieving a specific toy.1 In this context, the head tilt might be a sign of concentration and recall in dogs.
Interestingly, the study co-authors, from the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, made their discovery by chance while evaluating dogs who are “gifted word learners.”
Most dogs aren’t able to memorize the names of even two toys, but the super-smart dogs in the study (all the dogs in the study were Border Collies) could recall and retrieve at least 10 toys after learning their names. One furry little genius named Whisky correctly retrieved a jaw-dropping 54 out of 59 toys he had learned to identify.
The researchers spent several months testing the dogs’ ability to learn and recall toy names, and comparing their skills to those of 33 average dogs. For example, owners would place toys in another room and ask their dogs for them by name. Only the 7 gifted dogs were able to quickly learn and remember toy names.
Gifted Word Learners Are Also Head Tilters
Eventually the researchers realized the magnificent 7 had something else in common: the head tilt. They agreed that the pattern was too consistent to be merely coincidence, so they decided to learn more about it.
First, they performed internet searches and found lots of speculation as to why dogs tilt their heads, including to hear better, to listen for specific words or vocal tones, and to see past their snouts. Their research even uncovered the hypothesis that shelter dogs do the head tilt more often because they somehow know most people find it appealing.
Despite all the online opinions on head tilting, the researchers found almost nothing of a scientific nature that discussed the topic as a behavior rather than a symptom of certain health problems (e.g., vestibular disease). So, they returned to their own data to dig further.
Head Tilting Could Be Linked to Mental Processing
The research team discovered that when asked to retrieve a toy, the gifted dogs cocked their heads 43% of the time, compared with just 2% of the time for the average dogs. It’s important to note that the gifted dogs were just as likely to retrieve the correct toy with or without a head tilt.
They also favored either a left or right side tilt, which remained consistent throughout the study, and regardless of where the owner was standing in relation to the dog.
According to lead study author Andrea Sommese, all the Border Collies in the study were familiar with the words being spoken, but only the gifted dogs — those who had correctly attached a meaning to each word — displayed the tilting behavior consistently. Sommese argues that these results suggest head tilting isn’t just a sign of recognition of particular sounds, because if that were the case, all 40 dogs would be equally likely to do it.
The researchers think it could be linked to mental processing — a sign of high attentiveness or concentration in the gifted dogs. The dogs might be cross-referencing the command with their visual memories of the toys. The team hopes to follow up on this study by figuring out what sorts of sounds might be similarly meaningful to the remaining (non-gifted) dogs, to elicit the same behavior.
What Makes a Dog Smart?
Beyond obvious canine Einstein’s like Whisky and other gifted word learners, the characteristics that make a dog smart are subject to interpretation. Some pet parents feel an obedient dog is smart, while others believe a dog with a mind of her own is more intelligent. However, friendly and compliant dogs are considered smart by most human standards.
Dogs bred to be more independent and less eager to please aren’t dumb, but they do often require more patience when it comes to learning and following commands. “Here’s a bubble-bursting secret: Smart dogs often aren’t that great to live with, precisely because they’re too smart,” observes writer Jan Hoffman in The New York Times.2 Generally speaking, humans assign canine smarts to dogs who:
- Quickly learn and consistently obey commands
- Perform their sport, task or job consistently well
- Are willing and able to learn human-type stuff
Interestingly, researchers define and measure a dog’s intelligence differently from the way owners do. In fact, according to Clive D. L. Wynne, a psychology professor and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, “Smart dogs are often a nuisance. They get restless, bored and create trouble.”3
Wynne and other researchers suspect intelligence may not be the quality that truly sets dogs apart from other animals, at least when it comes to their interaction with humans.
“There is something remarkable about dogs,” Wynne observes. “They have this kind of open hyper-sociability. The dog itself wants to give out love. I think ‘smarts’ is a red herring. What we really need in our dogs is affection.”
How Smart Is the World’s Smartest Dog?
Wynne’s “red herring” theory was put to the test with a genuine genius of the canine world. Brian Hare of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center developed the Dognition website, which asks each online participant to play games (created by scientists, trainers and behaviorists) with their dog. Hare believes dogs, like humans, have multiple types of intelligence. Dognition assesses a dog’s empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning.
One of the dogs for which an assessment was completed was a very famous Border Collie named Chaser, who passed away on July 23rd in 2019 at age 15. Chaser was able to identify over 1,000 objects, could distinguish between nouns and verbs, and is considered to be the smartest dog in the world. Chaser’s Dognition results were fascinating.
“Researchers placed 10 items that Chaser could already identify in a pile with an unfamiliar one,” writes Hoffman. “Then they asked her to fetch the one that she had not yet learned. She did so correctly because she inferred it was the only object she did not recognize, researchers said. A week later, when asked to retrieve the same item, Chaser remembered.”
In the areas of inference and memory, Chaser scored “off the charts” according to Hare. However, in the areas of empathy and communication — characteristics that pet owners dearly love about their dogs — Chaser’s results were “totally uninteresting,” says Hare.
Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale and director of the university’s Canine Cognition Center, agrees with Hare that dogs have multiple types of intelligence.
“If you want to train an agility dog or a show dog, you value certain traits,” she says. “And if you have a stressful job and a family, you want a companion to cuddle. But they’re both ‘smart.’”4
Sources and References Science October 28,2021
Sommese, A et al. An exploratory analysis of head-tilting in dogs. Animal Cognition (2021)
The New York Times January 7, 2017
Article published by Dr Karen Becker