German Shepherd Head Tilt: What Does This Behavior Mean?

German Shepherd tilting its head

Every breed of dog has specific characteristics and behaviors which are strongly associated with them. For a German Shepherd, the head-tilt is iconic.

Regardless of age, when a German Shepherd tilts its head, it makes an endearing picture. But what does the head tilt mean?

German Shepherds tilt their head when they:

  • Are trying to locate and identify a sound
  • Are trying to see past their muzzle
  • Are trying to understand what you are saying
  • Are trying to tell you something
  • Want you to give them affection
  • Have an ear problem
  • Have vestibular disease
  • Have had a stroke

Behavioral head tilts don’t portend serious problems, but a head tilt is not always behavioral and can be a symptom of an underlying physiological or medical condition.

So, what does your German Shepherd’s head tilt mean, and how do you know if you need to take them for a consultation with your veterinarian?

Behavioral Head Tilts In German Shepherds

A German Shepherd may tilt its head based strictly on the physiological needs of sight and sound. Let’s take a closer look at how a head tilt applies to these two natural functions.

German Shepherds And Their Hearing

German Shepherds have amazing hearing. With ears that big, this is no surprise! They can hear sounds that are too far away for humans to hear.

They can also hear a wider range of sound frequencies. This means that the sound they hear could be in the room you are in, but you just can’t hear it.

A German Shepherd’s ears act like giant receivers to ‘catch’ the soundwaves and direct them into their inner ears where they can be converted into neural impulses and sent to the brain.

When your German Shepherd tilts its head, it may be trying to catch a far-off sound more clearly in an attempt to identify or pinpoint it.

To respond to noises is actually part of a German Shepherd’s innate nature. They are protective dogs, and so they want to know if the sound means danger is nearby.

If the sound does mean danger, they want to know if it is coming closer to their human.

German Shepherds And their Sight

German Shepherds have long muzzles. This can mean that their noses create extra blind-spots in their immediate field of vision, especially the area directly in front of them.

When your German Shepherd tilts their head, they may be trying to change their angle to something see better.

German Shepherds Pay Attention To Their Owners

German Shepherds tilt their heads to show you that they are listening and trying to understand you. You might find that if you say your German Shepherd’s name, they will tilt their head and look up at you expectantly.

They do not necessarily listen to your actual words, although they keep their ears open for cues like “walk”, “treat”, and “sit”. They may just be trying to read your tone to see how they should be responding to you.

The video below illustrates this aspect of head tilting behavior very well – and it’s adorable!

Furthermore, if you make an unexpected sound, such as a high-pitched squeal, your German Shepherd might tilt its head to figure out why you are behaving out of character.

German Shepherds are protective of their owners and also want to please them. So, if you are upset, your dog wants to know why. If you are fine, reassure your furry friend of this, so that they don’t worry.

German Shepherds Communicate With Their Owners

Just as German Shepherds tilt their heads to try and understand you better, they can also use a head tilt to communicate with you.

A head tilt can mean different things for different German Shepherds. They may be telling you, “I think you should stop stroking the cat” or, “I think we should go for a walk”.

German Shepherds Respond To Their Owners

If you think your German Shepherd’s head tilt is too adorable for words and you stop whatever you are doing to shower them with treats and affection, they will learn this behavioral pattern.

Then, if they ever want a cuddle or a bite of food, or if they think you’ve been working too long, they will come and tilt their head by you to elicit the response they have learned to expect.

Essentially, your German Shepherd has trained you!

German Shepherds Develop Habits

Just as humans pick up habits, dogs can too. If your dog has a sore on its paw, it will lick it repeatedly (despite your best efforts). After a while, even when the sore is healed, they continue to lick because it’s become a habit.

The same can apply for a head tilt; they can start to do it unconsciously and for no particular reason.

When Is Head Tilting A Cause For Concern?

If your German Shepherd has never done the head tilt for you, and then after eight years, they suddenly start, this can be a sign that there is something wrong.

Additionally, if your German Shepherd starts tilting its head more frequently or only to a particular side, it may indicate that it’s time to take them to the veterinarian.

Other signs can accompany a head tilt that can let you know that it’s not a behavioral tilt, so just pay attention to your dog and take note of any unusual head tilting behavior.

Ear Problems Can Cause A Head Tilt

If your German Shepherd has an ear infection, they can tilt their heads to alleviate the pain or discomfort associated with the inflammation and fluid build-up.

If your German Shepherd suddenly starts tilting its head more often, this could indicate an ear infection.

Accompanying signs to look out for include:

  • hesitant head shakes
  • an increase in ear scratching
  • a funny smell
  • redness inside the ear
  • hot ears

If you think your German Shepherd has an ear infection, take them to a veterinarian who can clean out the ear and provide you with antibiotics.

The most effective way to manage German Shepherd ear infections is to prevent them from happening in the first place. You can do this by using ear wipes about once per week. We find that these wipes by PetMD do the trick very well.

Sometimes the ear infection is really bad when the owner figures out that there is something wrong. To prevent this from happening, form the habit of checking your German Shepherd’s ears regularly.

Have a quick look to check for dirt and redness, a quick feel to check for heat, and a quick sniff to check for odor.

A note on ticks:

Ticks are nasty creatures, and they can latch onto your poor German Shepherd’s sensitive ears.

If your German Shepherd starts to tilt its head more frequently and rub or scratch the ears with their paw or on furniture, check the ear for ticks.

Tick bites cause pain and irritation, so your German Shepherd will try to get them off.

Vestibular Disease Can Cause A Head Tilt

The vestibular system controls balance, and it includes structures of the inner ear and the brain. So, vestibular disease can affect the ear, the brain, or both, depending on the cause.

If your German Shepherd is older and suddenly starts tilting its head, or if your German Shepherd (any age) starts tilting its head more frequently and more often to one particular side, it can be an indication of vestibular disease.

Accompanying signs of vestibular disease include:

  • loss of balance (staggering)
  • leaning to the same side as the head tilt
  • turning in circles
  • erratic eye movements
  • nausea

These symptoms are all quite disturbing, so you would probably already be on your way to an animal clinic if your German Shepherd was displaying them.

However, the signs may be quite subtle at first, so you need to be vigilant.

Strokes Can Cause A Head Tilt

A head tilt can indicate that your German Shepherd has had a stroke. If the head tilt is accompanied by sudden muscle weakness (this may be subtle), turning in circles, paralysis of one or more limbs, or uncontrolled urination and bowel movements, it can mean that your dog has had a stroke.

As with vestibular disease, these accompanying and serious symptoms may not present immediately, or they may be subtle.

Final Thoughts

German Shepherds are known for their head tilt, and there are many innocuous reasons for this behavior.

German Shepherds tilt their heads to hear better and see better; they also tilt their heads to understand and communicate with their owners.

However, there are some more serious reasons for a German Shepherd to tilt its head.

Ear infections, ticks, vestibular disease, and stroke can cause your German Shepherd to tilt its head. There will typically be other indications that the head tilt has changed from behavioral to clinical, so don’t panic every time you see it.

You know your German Shepherd, so you will know if they are acting strange or if their head tilt is out of character.

Additionally, if you take your German Shepherd for regular check-ups with a veterinarian, they will be able to tell you if there is a problem.

Hunter Reed

I've owned and trained German Shepherds for over 20 years now. While I've lived in many different places and traveled extensively - the places change, my dogs don't. German Shepherds have been my constant companions. I love every aspect of training them and simply just having them around. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge about German Shepherds with the world, and I encourage all future dog owners to consider one as a companion as well. Read my story here.

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