While not widely researched, there does seem to be evidence to support five possible reasons for the canine head tilt:
1. Doing so helps makes them more attentive listeners. One study actually found that dogs tilt their heads more when their humans use the words that the dog finds most interesting/important and were thus words that they knew really well. This makes sense given the plethora of funny viral videos of people saying nonsensical sentences, punctuated with their dogs' favorite words like car ride, walkies, cookie, etc. and the dogs' responses which invariably include head tilts and enthusiasm. So, it would seem one possible explanation is that tilting their heads helps them process what we are saying, picking out the key words and phrases of value to them.
2. The tilted head makes it easier to see better. A dog's vision could be blocked by a long nose (my collies, for example). Evidence to support this would be the fact that flatter faced dogs tilt their heads with less frequency than those with the longer snouts. So, it would seem some dogs tilt their heads to get a better perspective.
3. Tilting the head may make it easier to figure out where a sound is coming from. I've seen this one many times. My female smooth collie, Pearl, used to sit in the yard like a statue, tilting her head from side to side, before pouncing on a spot and starting to dig. She was listening for the moles under the lawn! Some breeds of dogs with heavy ear flaps may tilt their heads even more as those heavy flaps can mute or block sounds. So, they may be tilting their heads to listen better.
4. If tilting their head gets them positive attention, they'll do it for the love. Dogs are smart. If they see you laughing, smiling, and giving them treats and attention for tilting their heads, they'll do it just for that. Case in point: All of those videos on social media of dogs cocking their heads!
5. And a more serious reason; the dog has an underlying medical concern. Dogs with vestibular issues (problems with balance and depth perception, turning in circles, etc.) may tilt their heads to try to regain their equilibrium. Dogs with ear infections may tilt and shake their heads to try to dislodge whatever is in the ear canal or as a way to indicate pain/discomfort in their ears. Head injuries and brain tumors can also cause head tilt in dogs. So, if you see your dog tilting its head with some regularity and at times when you've not been soliciting and rewarding the behavior, see your veterinarian to further explore the underlying causes.
So, what did I do to get the influencer's dog to tilt his head? I made ridiculously high pitched sounds and then quickly offered a high value treat for the head tilt. Within a couple of minutes, I was getting head tilts in rapid succession due to the rewards and excitement.
My first dog was a Border Collie mix named Shadow, who I know I've mentioned here before. I could get her to cock her head basically on command. What was the command? Me saying, "Huh?" and cocking my head. She'd mimic me! Never discount observational learning as a way to get a desired behavior as well.
I think I love these fun questions almost as much as the serious ones. As always, if you have any questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.