What Does It Mean When My Dog Shakes Their Head?

There’s a saying. If you want someone to love you forever, buy a dog, feed it and keep it aroundDick Dale 

As much as we love our four-legged friends, they have a habit of doing the weirdest things.

They bark when there’s no one at the door, run around in circles for no reason, and randomly shake their heads while they’re in the middle of doing something else. But just because we don’t understand why they’re doing it, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some purpose to, and behind the behavior.

It may seem goofy to us, but your dog has a perfectly valid canine reason for doing everything that he or she does. So, let’s try and get to the bottom of why your dog shakes their head, and what it might mean when they’re doing it. 

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Shaking All Over

Anyone who has ever spent any time with a dog has seen them shake their entire body, usually after they’ve taken a dip in a river, lake, or pool. It’s one of the methods that they use to get rid of the excess water in their fur and helps to ensure that they’ll dry off faster.

After all, if there’s less water trapped in their coat, the time it takes them to dry decreases – nature has an answer for everything. 

And the other methods dogs use to dry their fur? Well, they mainly involve them rubbing themselves on your incredibly expensive carpet or hogging all the space in front of the vents. It’d be nice if they could dry themselves a bit more by shaking but, hey, that’s how the cookie crumbles.

The full-body shake is also your dog’s way of hitting their factory reset after they become over-stimulated or too excited.

A good shake helps them to shrug off the last of whatever it was that popped up on their radar and made them go a little haywire and get back to the serious business of bouncing around and having fun. It’s like the canine version of taking a deep breath.

But a full-body shake isn’t the same as a head shake, and while it’s helpful to know why your dog shakes their entire body, it doesn’t explain why they shake their head. 

The Everyday Head Shake

Ninety-nine percent of the time, when your dog shakes their head, it’s absolutely nothing to worry about. It’s a perfectly normal canine behavior, which is why all dogs, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the biggest St. Bernard do it. But, why do they do it?

First of all, what do we mean by a head shake? When you talk to your dog, and they tilt their head towards you, that doesn’t count.

The first thing that we need to make clear is that when you talk to your dog, and they tilt their head toward you, that doesn’t count as a head shake. That’s just their way of making sure that they can hear everything that you’re saying to them (although whether or not they understand what you’re saying is another matter) and letting you know that you have their undivided attention. 

The head shake we’re talking about it a back-and-forth motion mostly limited to their head and neck. You’ve probably seen your pup do it countless times, and it’s nothing to worry about.

Most of the time, head shakes are used to relieve inner-ear itchiness. While dogs can scratch the outside of their ears without a problem, it’s harder to take care of those inner-ear itches.

Rather than risk hurting the inside of their ears with their claws, dogs will shakes their heads to relieve itches, and maybe shake loose anything stuck in their ears. That might be earwax, bugs (ew!), or water after a swim. So, the head shake is an everyday behavioral trait that dogs use to deal with the itches and irritations that happen inside their ears. 

woman looking into her dog's mouth

When The Head Shake Becomes Problematic

As we’ve already said, the vast majority of the time, when your dog shakes their head, it’s absolutely no cause for concern. It’s a little odd, but it’s nothing that you need to worry about. It’s the best they can do without a human at their side to scratch their ears 24/7.

Unless your pup starts to shake their head a lot more than they normally do, in which case it might be a sign of something more serious. 

Just like us, dogs can fall victim to ear infections or a build-up of ear wax. So if your dog starts shaking their head a lot more than usual, it might be because they’re dealing with one (or both) of those things.

If that is the case–although your pup won’t be happy about it–it could be time to take them to the vet to have their ears checked, just to make sure that there’s nothing wrong.

And if there is something amiss, your vet will be able to prescribe the right medication and treatment to make your pup feel better and treat whatever the problem is. 

The Final Head-Shaking Word 

When your dog shakes their head from the time to time, you don’t need to panic because it’s an absolutely normal thing to do.

If you notice a large increase in head-shaking, then take a peek at their ears and see if they need veterinary help.

But otherwise, humans scratch our heads and dogs shake theirs. It’s just nature’s way of helping us both to deal with the itches and irritations that we have to face every single day. 

PuppyLists is written by Kat, who has owned, trained, volunteered with, and loved dogs for nearly three decades. When she isn't writing or researching, she's out adventuring with her 15 year old Lab mix.