On using baby talk to communicate with puppies

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Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it?

A new study on dog-directed speech asks why we use it and whether or not dogs pay attention to it

You don’t have to be a scientist to know what tone of voice puppies like best. You just have to be a… dog trainer?

As dog trainers, we encourage clients to embrace that gooey high-pitched voice that we so often fall into using when an adorable puppy is nigh. Much of puppy training involves simply getting a puppy to pay attention to you, which can be hard, especially in puppy class. Puppies would usually rather paying attention to the other puppies. If you want your dog to remember you exist, going high in pitch is a surefire way to help them successfully “come” when you ask them to. Dogs make use of pitch when they communicate with each other, too. Deep barks are usually “go away!” kind of barks, as opposed to higher-pitched barks, which are often invitations to play. It’s not just dogs and kids — studies have shown that many animals seem to convey “come here” or “go away” using pitch, just like we do. There are many other interesting ways in which we innately know how to best vocally communicate with other animals. Renowned animal trainer Dr. Patricia McConnell did her dissertation on whether or not our repeated quick sounds sped up animals and if slow “whoaaaa” -like sounds slowed them down.” She found that, indeed, they did.

Dog trainers know this stuff; it’s certainly something you learn on the job! But The New York Times and New York Magazine and the like are just getting wind of this information published articles about how high-pitched slow talk with emphasis on vowels helps puppies absorb words more easily, thanks to a new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers explain:

We recorded adult participants speaking in front of pictures of puppies, adult and old dogs, and analysed the quality of their speech. We then performed playback experiments to assess dogs’ reaction to dog-directed speech compared with normal speech. We found that human speakers used dog-directed speech with dogs of all ages and that the acoustic structure of dog-directed speech was mostly independent of dog age, except for sound pitch which was relatively higher when communicating with puppies. Playback demonstrated that, in the absence of other non-auditory cues, puppies were highly reactive to dog-directed speech, and that the pitch was a key factor modulating their behaviour, suggesting that this specific speech register has a functional value in young dogs. Conversely, older dogs did not react differentially to dog-directed speech compared with normal speech. The fact that speakers continue to use dog-directed with older dogs therefore suggests that this speech pattern may mainly be a spontaneous attempt to facilitate interactions with non-verbal listeners.

They made the humans talk to pictures?! Clearly, not everyone is as wealthy in currency of puppies as we are…

Wanting to see real-life proof of the “baby voice” effect, last week Fox News visited our studio to discuss this important topic. 


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