If you want a happy dog that responds to your commands, it’s time to practise your baby-talk.
According to new research from the University of York, speaking in a higher pitch with exaggerated emotion, in the way people often do with babies and toddlers, can improve communication between humans and their canine pals.
The scientists found speaking to dogs in this way made dogs more inclined to spend time with their owners and also led to them paying more attention to instructions.
Previous studies on communicating with dogs suggested talking in a baby voice improved engagement with puppies but made little difference with adult dogs. The latest study aimed to further explore whether social bonding between adult animals and humans was influenced by the type and content of communication.
Dr Katie Slocombe from the University of York’s department of psychology said: “A special speech register, known as infant-directed speech, is thought to aid language acquisition and improve the way a human baby bonds with an adult. This form of speech is known to share some similarities with the way in which humans talk to their pet dogs, known as dog-directed speech.”
Unlike previous experiments, the research team positioned real humans in the same room as the dog, rather than broadcasting speech over a loud speaker without a human present. This made the set up much more naturalistic for the dogs and helped the team test whether dogs not only paid more attention more to “dog speak”, but were motivated to spend more time with the person who had spoken to them in that way.
The researchers did a series of speech tests with 30 adult dogs, where they were given the chance to listen to one person using dog-directed speech containing phrases such as “you’re a good dog”, and “shall we go for a walk?”, and then another person using adult-directed speech with no dog-related content, such as “I went to the cinema last night”.
Attention during the speech was measured, and following the speech, the dogs were allowed to choose which speaker they wanted to physically interact with.
The speakers then mixed dog-directed speech with non-dog-related words and adult-directed speech with dog-related words, to allow the researchers to understand whether it was the high-pitched emotional tone of the speech that dogs were attracted to or the words themselves.
Alex Benjamin, a PhD student from the university’s department of psychology, said: “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.
“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.
“We hope this research will be useful for pet owners interacting with their dogs, and also for veterinary professionals and rescue workers.”
The research is published in full in the journal Animal Cognition.