New study: Who’s a good boy? Oh, es e iz! Oh, es e iz!

What do dogs and babies have in common?

We tend to talk to both in silly voices.

Turns out, there are good reasons for that.

A new study by researchers at the University of York in England shows that the way we talk to our dogs plays an important part in building relationships with them, similar to the way that talking baby talk to infants helps them bond with adults.

When adults talk to babies, they use a distinct speech register characterized by a higher, more variable pitch and a slower tempo than they use when talking to other adults.

We call it “baby talk.”

Linguists and child development professionals call it infant-directed speech (IDS).

The study’s lead author, Katie Slocombe, PhD, said: “[IDS] is known to share some similarities with the way in which humans talk to their pet dogs, known as dog-directed speech.”

Similarities between dog-directed speech (DDS) and IDS include elevated pitch and exaggerated intonation. Slocombe said dog-directed speech is common in human-dog interactions in Western cultures, “but there isn’t a great deal known about whether it benefits a dog in the same way that it does a baby.”

Previous studies on how humans communicate with dogs suggest that using DDS improved engagement with puppies but didn’t make much difference when communicating with adult dogs.

Slocombe’s team wanted to test those findings.

They carried out a series of speech tests with adult dogs, during which the dogs listened to recordings of a woman using DDS (with dog-related content such as, “you’re a good dog” and “shall we go for a walk?”). The dogs then listened to recordings of another woman talking the way adults normally talk to each other, also known as adult-directed speech (ADS). The ADS recordings used phrases with no dog-related content, such as, “I went to the cinema last night.”

A person sat near each speaker as the recordings played. Researchers then studied the dogs’ responses to see which person the dogs approached.

Can oo guess what the doggies did? Oh, can oo?

All dogs, regardless of age, were more likely to approach the person sitting near the speaker that played the recordings of DDS.

Alex Benjamin, a PhD student at the University of York and coauthor of the paper said, “We found that adult dogs were more likely to want to interact and spend time with the [person near the speaker that played DDS] with dog-related content” than the person near the speaker that played ADS with no dog-related content.

“When we mixed-up the two types of speech and content, the dogs showed no preference for one person over the other. This suggests that adult dogs need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant,” Benjamin said.

But what about men’s voices? How do dogs react when guys use DDS?

“Most of the previous work on both DDS and IDS has been conducted with females, and so we chose to use female speakers for this first study,” Slocombe told NEWStat. “We are currently investigating the potential for gender differences in the production of DDS. Once we know more about how much men naturally use DDS, we will then be in a position to see if dogs also prefer men’s DDS.”

One thing we do know: it’ll sound even goofier.

Photo credit: © Monica Click


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