Study provides evidence that, yes, canine companions love your ‘doggy talk’
As veterinarians we often hear our clients make statements such as, “My dog is just like a child to me.” Or, “We don’t have any children, so our dog is our baby.” This relationship scenario becomes even more obvious when we consider how many pet owners talk to their dogs—their speech pattern is often very similar to what we hear when some adults speak to infants.
This pattern of speech has been termed “infant-directed speech” and is characterized by a higher pitch or frequency (experts theorize that this characteristic is designed to gather attention), exaggerated intonation contours (a pitch pattern that rises and falls at various points in a phrase), and greater affect (facial expressions meant to increase affiliative interactions). All of these features distinguish infant-directed speech from adult-directed speech.
A similar speech pattern exists in dogs, and it’s termed “dog-directed speech.” The primary difference between infant-directed and dog-directed speech is that people don’t tend to hyperarticulate their vowels with dogs like they do with infants. Experts think this aspect of infant-directed speech is meant to assist with language acquisition. Research with infants has demonstrated on numerous occasions that babies choose infant-directed speech over adult-directed speech.
A recent study published in Animal Cognition was designed to determine whether dogs, like infants, prefer dog-directed speech over adult-directed speech.1 The investigators were building on previous research showing that puppies preferred dog-directed speech over adult-directed speech but that mature dogs did not—at least when that speech was played over a loudspeaker with no human present in the room.2 These researchers speculated that if a person was available for the dogs to associate with either kind of speech, the results might be different.
In order to test this hypothesis, the researchers established a similar protocol, but instead of having only loudspeakers play the content, they had volunteers hold audio playback devices on their laps and play recordings of people using either dog-directed speech or adult-directed speech. In phase one of their experiment, the researchers matched content and prosody (the rhythmic pattern of intonation of the speech) for both types of speech. In other words, they used words and phrases people would naturally say to dogs in the dog-directed speech and words and phrases people would naturally use with adult humans in the adult-directed speech.
The result? Dogs of all ages showed a distinct preference for naturalistic dog-directed speech (matched prosody and content) over adult-directed speech, as demonstrated by their attention to the speaker and willingness to approach the speaker after the speech was concluded. No effect was seen for the dogs’ proximity to the speaker, the identity of the speakers or the appearance of the speakers.
Next, the experimenters wanted to determine what factors were driving the dogs’ preference for dog-directed speech—was it the words and phrases being used, the speakers’ intonation and inflections, or a combination of the two that made the difference? So they paired dog-directed speech prosody with adult content and adult-directed speech prosody with dog content. This time, the dogs showed no preference for either type of speech. It seems as though both prosody and content matter when it comes to dogs attending to naturalistic dog-directed speech.
The authors conclude that dogs of all ages prefer naturalistic dog-directed speech when a person is present and theorize that this preference may be related to the improved attention and social bonding that occurs when people use dog-directed speech.
The authors give three possible explanations for why dogs prefer dog-directed speech. One possibility is that high-pitched sounds are associated with affiliation and submission across many different types of mammal species. Another is that as dogs were being domesticated, they were attracted to and felt a greater degree of safety with human social groups that used high-pitched speech with them. The third possibility is that the high-pitched speech is often paired with positive events such as play, toys or treats.
Whatever the reason, it does seem as though talking “baby talk” to dogs can result in an increased response and tighter social bond between you and your dog. But keep in mind that there can be too much of a good thing. Constant communication with dog-directed speech may result in habituation to the sound, resulting in a reduction in response. So restricting the use of dog-directed speech to periods of play or training may help maintain the effect for longer periods.
Overall, this study was well-structured and reinforced what many may have anecdotally suspected. Animated interactions with dogs seem to get a more active response from our canine companions.
1. Benjamin A, Slocombe K. ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog-directed speech. Anim Cognition 2018;21(3):353-364.
2. Ben-Aderet T, Gallego-Abenza M, Reby D, et al. Dog-directed speech: Why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it? Proc R Soc B 2017;284(1846):2016-2429.