The German Shepherd head tilt is a bona fide trait of this beloved dog breed. But while every German Shepherd owner has seen it and all German Shepherd lovers know it well, what is less clear is why the German Shepherd, in particular, does this.
Why do German Shepherds tilt their heads? Why do pairs of German Shepherds seem to be deliberately synchronizing this move? Is there something only your dog knows that they aren’t telling you?
Find out all the details about that famous GSD head tilt in this article.
Why Do German Shepherds Tilt Their Heads?
There can be a number of reasons why dogs do the head tilt, but the most likely reason is that you are reinforcing the behavior in your dog. As the American Kennel Club (AKC) explains, this behavior actually isn’t unique to GSDs. But their regal heads and tall, cocked ears definitely make the head tilt look more pronounced and deliberate.
We will talk much more about this and other reasons in this article.
Watch a German Shepherd Do the Head Tilt
Just in case you are brand new to German Shepherds and you are not quite sure what all the fuss is about, you can watch this YouTube video of two adorable German Shepherds tilting their heads.
Main Reasons Why German Shepherds Tilt Their Head
There are several theories about why German Shepherds (and all dogs, really) will tilt their heads.
These reasons are not mutually exclusive. Your dog may actually tilt their head for all kinds of different reasons depending on what is going on at that time.
But, as VCA Animal Hospital points out, it sure can help to know the main reasons most dog experts agree on so you can get better at decoding your dog’s reason for doing the head tilt and what they might be trying to say to you.
Reason #1: You think it is cute and respond positively
How do you react when you see your German Shepherd doing the head tilt? Do you run to get your camera to take a picture or video?
Do you squeal with “cuteness overload” and give your dog extra praise, pats, or treats?
Do you drop whatever you were just doing and devote your full attention to your dog?
If you were your German Shepherd, all of these behaviors would likely be good enough reasons to do the head tilt again and again. After all, most dogs live for “their” people and the German Shepherd is a particularly people-centric breed.
Even if you haven’t necessarily realized you are doing it, you may be reinforcing this behavior by giving your dog what they want most – your attention, time, and company.
Reason #2: Your dog doesn’t understand what you are doing
Another common reason why your German Shepherd may do the head tilt behavior is that they are trying to work out what your behavior means.
They could be having trouble because of a medical issue (as we will talk about in the next few sections here). Or they could simply be evaluating your body language, tone, facial expression, or other cues from every different angle.
While this period of evaluation might look to you like your cute dog is just tilting their adorable head, your dog may be using their senses to pick up extra cues to take their direction on what to do next from you.
Reason #3: Your dog has an ear infection
One commonly overlooked possible reason for why a dog might tilt their head is because they have an ear infection or ear mites.
This is particularly likely if your dog’s ears also smell like corn chips – what is often called “Frito feet” when the infection occurs in your dog’s paws, according to PetMD.
But there can be such a thing as “Frito ears” as well, and the underlying culprit here is typically yeast bacteria.
While you are more likely to see your dog tilt their head to rub their ears on something because they itch, you may also see the head tilt happen if there is fluid build-up or infection in the ear causing swelling in the ear canal and trouble hearing.
Reason #4: Your dog is having trouble hearing well
Speaking of trouble hearing, sometimes a German Shepherd may cock their head to one side to pick up frequencies or to gather more information about what they may be hearing.
Dogs can hear very well and use their hearing not just to detect the source of a sound but also its location, distance, and threat potential.
When your German Shepherd cocks their head, this may help the ears communicate a lot more information about what they are hearing from you or around you.
Reason #5: Your dog is having trouble seeing clearly
Still, another frequently overlooked reason why some German Shepherds may cock or tilt their head is due to vision needs.
One canine biologist hypothesized in Psychology Today that dogs with longer muzzles, like the German Shepherd for instance, may do more head tilt behaviors because they are trying to see without having their own muzzle blocking what they see.
In this study, the biologist noted that more owners with long muzzle-type dog breeds said their dogs frequently tilted their heads.
While dogs have excellent senses in terms of smell and hearing, sight isn’t the strongest sense for most dog breeds.
This is another possible reason why it might be important for your German Shepherd to tilt their head to try to get the best and clearest view of what they are looking at.
Canine Biologists Call It Dog Head Tilt Empathy
As Refinery 29 points out, scientists and canine biologists refer to the head tilt behavior in canines as “dog head tilt empathy.”
National Geographic provides further insight into why dogs might be particularly prone to display empathetic behaviors towards people.
As one group of researchers explained, dogs have even evolved special types of eyebrow muscles that allow them to make “puppy dog eyes” at people!
So when your German Shepherd tilts their head and makes those mournful puppy dog eyes at you, it is likely not a coincidence. Wild wolves don’t have the ability to make this expression even if they wanted to because their eyebrow muscles don’t move that way.
Decoding Why Your German Shepherd Does the Head Tilt
It is great to learn more about why dogs in general and German Shepherd dogs in particular may perform the head tilt move.
But it all gets a lot more interesting when you start to look at why your particular dog tilts their head at you.
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the current theories about why dogs tilt their heads at their people, you can start to take a closer look at when your German Shepherd does this and what it might be linked to.
Does your dog want treats? Is it almost time for dinner or their evening walk? Is your dog trying to work out a particular tone in your voice or a look on your face?
Do you have something yummy that smells delicious and your dog wants to try it? Could it be your dog is frustrated because you are patting the family cat?
These are all interesting questions to ponder as you and your dog continue to get to know each other better. You may even want to jot down what happened just before you looked up to see your dog tilting their head at you to start to connect the dots.
When to Have Your Dog Checked By Your Veterinarian
Earlier here we mentioned that sometimes the head tilt behavior may actually be due to medical issues with vision, hearing, or discomforts such as infection.
This can be particularly important to know about if your German Shepherd is in their senior years of life, a time when eye cataracts, skin and ear infection or hearing loss can be more common for many dog breeds.
It is always wise to talk with your dog’s veterinarian if you see a persistent behavior pattern such as a head tilt that doesn’t seem to have any other logical reason for being.
Your canine veterinarian can check your dog’s vision and hearing and also look for any signs of yeast infection or parasites to make sure these aren’t causing the head tilt you are seeing.
Dogs may not have human language abilities – although it sure would be wonderful if they did! But your German Shepherd is highly intelligent and will definitely continue finding new ways to “talk” to you, including by tilting their head.
The more you can learn about all the different reasons your dog may do the head tilt, the better you and your dog can talk to each other about what you each want and need.