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Doggy Talk Can Help Capture A Dog’s Interest…Sometimes

by Bethany Meissner

Almost every pet parent has, at some point in time, used at least a little high-pitched rhythmic speech when talking to their pet. It’s similar to the baby talk that adults often use when cooing over an infant. Most of us don’t think about why we do this or what purpose it might serve. Thankfully, scientists in the department of psychology at the University of York looked into this “doggy talk” and found that it might actually help capture the interest of dogs – so long as the content of what you’re saying is also relevant!

Rosie looks up as she hears someone use doggy talk to tell her that she is a “good doggy!” Photo Credit: Bethany Meissner

Dr. Katie Slocombe and Ph.D. student Alex Benjamin led the study. They published the results in the journal Animal Cognition with the title “’Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog-directed speech.” Dr. Katie explained that “infant-directed speech,” colloquially known as baby talk, “is known to share some similarities with the way in which humans talk to their pet dogs, known as dog-directed speech,” but that “there isn’t a great deal known about whether it benefits a dog in the same way that it does a baby.” Studies have suggested to scientists that baby talk helps human infants in acquiring language skills as well as improving their bond with adults. Because of that the team, as Dr. Katie explained it, wanted to “see whether social bonding between animals and humans was influenced by the type and content of the communication.” Would doggy talk improve bonding behaviors and would the words that were said matter as much as the tone?

The team recruited 37 adult dogs of a variety of breeds and breed mixes for a series of tests. For the first test, dogs heard one person use doggy-talk to say sentences and phrases such as “you’re a good dog” and “shall we go for a walk?” The dogs also heard a different person use non-doggy talk, normal speech, to say sentences that wouldn’t be particularly meaningful to a dog, such as saying that they went to a movie last night. Scientists measured the dog’s attention to the people while the people were talking. After the people talked, the dogs could choose which person to approach and physically interact with. In another test, the content and type of talk were switched so that people were using doggy talk to talk about the movie they went to, and non-doggy talk to say “you’re a good dog.” Doing this allowed the team to see if it was the doggy talk or the words themselves that attracted the dogs’ interest.

The results showed that although the dogs did have a marked increase in interest when people used doggy talk and dog-related words, they didn’t seem to show any increased interest when doggy talk was used to communicate non-dog-related content. It is more than just our tone that matters when we talk to our dogs! Alex explained, “This suggests that adult dogs need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant.” Apparently using doggy talk to tell your pup about the movie you saw last night won’t do the trick. However, another cool result of the study was that, for the first time, researchers have evidence that dogs prefer to spend time with someone who they just heard use doggy talk to say dog-related things. So, keep using doggy talk to tell your dog that they’re good dogs who enjoy treats and walks – it might help strengthen their bond to you!

We at Halo actively support rescue workers by donating more than 1.5 million bowls of dog food and cat food each year to shelter animals through #HaloFeedItForward. Alex continued, “We hope this research will be useful for pet owners interacting with their dogs, and also for veterinary professionals and rescue workers.” How awesome that science is helping people and dogs better understand each other!