Why do we talk to dogs like that?

It’s hard to resist. You see an adorable puppy in the park or outside a cafe and all of a sudden, your
voice jumps up about two octaves and you’re talking total gooey nonsense. Who’s a good boy? But
there’s a good reason for this puppy talk and it has a lot to do with the bond between person and
pooch.
So-called dog-directed speech is very similar to the way we talk to babies, which is called infant-
directed speech. It’s higher-pitched, slower, and kind of sing-songy compared to our usual
conversational tones. Because both dogs and infants are non-verbal, researchers believe we
exaggerate the other parts of speech, like melody or pitch, to keep their attention. And it seems to
work, at least in younger dogs. In an experiment published in 2017, a loudspeaker played pre-
recorded puppy talk for 10 dogs and 10 puppies.
The puppies approached the speaker more quickly and sat by it for longer when the speaker played
cutesy puppy talk than they did for regular adult speech. But it may not be just the tone. Dogs may
pay attention to the content of our speech as well. Which, sure, dogs can’t talk, but dog owners
know better than to casually use words like “treat” or “walk,” unless you’re ready for the
consequences, in the form of puppy excitement. And in a 2018 study, researchers tested dogs’
responses to our content versus our tone, by creating a mishmash of dog-directed and human-
directed speech. When they played typical doggy talk in a dog-directed voice “Come on! Let’s go for a
walk!” The dogs preferred it to typical adult-directed speech.
Experimenters also read human scripts about boring human stuff like going to the gym, but it was
spoken in a cute doggy voice. They also recorded the opposite: cutesy “Who’s a good boy” phrases in
a normal adult voice. When they played the recordings to adult dogs, the dogs had no preference for
a doggy talk when the cutesy style of speaking was used to talk about boring, non-dog topics. The
doggy words mattered too when it came to getting their attention. And dog-directed speech might
have another function too: improving the bond between humans and animals. Dogs and wolves yowl
in a high pitch when greeting each other and when asking for food or care from their mother. And
some scientists hypothesize that we humans might have unintentionally hijacked this form of
communication.
During our domestication of dogs many thousands of years ago, we might have selected for ones
who were more tuned in and reacted positively to this way of talking, by wagging their tail or yapping
back for example. Alternatively, we might just train our puppies from birth to respond to our cute
puppy talk. Either way, in that 2017 study, the authors suggested that the adult dogs may already be
bonded to their owners, and not care what the experimenters were saying, and that’s why they
didn’t care about dog-directed speech as puppies did. And the research overall suggests that we
humans don’t just talk to our dogs this way to be all gooshy. The dogs respond to it, and it
strengthens our bonds.
So don’t feel weird about veering into goofy dog-directed speech every time you see a corgi. You’re
just furthering thousands of years of companionship.

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