YORK, England — “Who’s my happy little doggy? You are!” Some dog owners may sound silly when they treat their beloved pooches like babies, but it turns out dogs may prefer it that way. A new study finds that talking in “dog-speak” to our beloved pooches in an important way to enrich bonding between dogs and their owners.
When parents speak to their babies using soft, but exaggerated lovey-dovey voices, they’re making the baby comfortable over time with their voice and encouraging expression. Research has shown that babies acquire language skills faster when spoken to in this manner. The same effects apply to dogs when their owners speak to them in similar tones, according to scientists from the University of York.
Previous research into “dog-speak,” defined by researchers are using high-pitched, overly emotive voices, showed that puppies demonstrated increased engagement with owners, but there was little difference in adult dogs.
York Researchers, led by Dr. Katie Slocombe, tested this theory with different experiments designed to cast more light on why humans talk to dogs this way and whether it’s useful to dogs in some way when bonding with their owners.
“This high-pitched rhythmic speech is common in human interactions with dogs 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,” she says in a news release. “We wanted to look at this question and see whether social bonding between animals and humans was influenced by the type and content of the communication.”
Slocombe and her team put humans in the same room as adult dogs, breaking with previous experiments that featured recordings of human voices. They first tested out how “dog-related content” spoken to the dogs affected them. Researchers used common dog-speak phrases like “You’re a good boy,” and “Shall we go for a walk?” to the pets. These were followed by phrases not related to the dogs, such as “I went to the cinema last night.”
The phrases were varied and mixed to see if dog-speak was more effective for its content or for its delivery and how it compared to a dog’s reaction to normal human conversation. The researchers measured each dog’s attentiveness during the testing and allowed the animals to choose which researcher they wanted to interact with.
The team found that the dogs were more likely to show preference for people who spoke to them using dog-speak and dog-related content over those who didn’t do either.
“We found that adult dogs were more likely to want to interact and spend time with the speaker that used dog-directed speech with dog-related content, than they did those that used adult-directed speech with no dog-related content,” says co-author Alex Benjamin. “When we mixed-up the two types of speech and content, the dogs showed no preference for one speaker 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.”
The full study was published in the journal Animal Cognition.