Talking “Baby Talk” to Dogs

A study shows that dogs really do like baby talk. That high-pitched, melodic, emotionally engaging voice humans distinctively used with babies, catches and holds the attention of your dog! The scientific term for this is “infant-directed speech”. In this study, scientists compared dogs’ reactions to baby talk and to regular adult speech.

The study compared phrases and words commonly used around dogs as well as random, non-dog related phrases and words. Unsurprisingly, dogs showed a clear preference for dog-related terms.

What was surprising is that dogs like hearing their favorite words together with the baby talk voice. Especially the puppies!


What is Pet-Directed and Infant-Directed Speech?

Pet-directed speech is like infant-directed speech. It’s a speaking pattern with higher pitch and slow tempo known to engage baby’s attention and promote their language learning. When talking to their babies, humans use a special speech register characterized by higher and more variable pitch, slower tempo, and clear articulation of vowels than in their speech addressed to adults. This infant-directed speech has a positive effect in engaging and maintaining the attention of babies and facilitating their social interaction with their caregivers. Children as young as seven weeks old show a preference for this speech over adult-directed speech. Accordingly, this means infants are more engaged in what is being said to them when they listen to this special speech.

Infant-directed speech has also been theorized to facilitate language learning by supporting the construction of vowel and phonetic categories, clear production of consonants and the learning of new words. This novel role in language learning is consistent with a decrease in the use and acoustic specificity of the infant-directed speech that follows the development of language skills during the first year of the human.


Reactions to Infant-Directed Speech

These dynamic changes can be explained by modifications of the infant’s reactions to speech. As the infant grows up, they become more reactive to their caregivers’ facilitations and respond more specifically to meaningful sentences. A promotion of interaction becomes easier, which lessens the use of infant-directed speech. Another explanation of the use of the speech could be that the morphological features of the younger babies elicit infant-directed speech as part of caretaking behavior. As these features become less prominent, the elicitation of infant-directed speech decreases. The infant-directed speech functions as a communication signal and then evolves to accompany the cognitive development of babies, that depends on proximate mechanisms that are static and dynamic.


The Pet Parent

Dogs have been in close relationships with humans for thousands of years and this intimate proximity is reflected in many aspects of empathy and mutual understanding. More than 80% of pet owners refer to themselves as a “pet parent”. And adult women show the same brain activation patterns when presented with a picture of their dog and their own children.


Dogs Response to Pet-Directed Speech

Many dogs do react to human gestural or vocal signals, and feelings. Dogs do not possess the language ability obviously, but humans do change their speech patterns when they talk to dogs using what is known as directed speech. Pet-directed speech shares a similar structure of properties as infant-directed speech, being slower tempo and high pitch register.

Despite the widespread interest in understanding the nature of the human-dog relationship, the ultimate and proximate factors promoting the use of pet-directed speech by the human speaker remain unknown. The parallel between pet-directed speech and infant-directed speech might have different origins. Pet-directed speech might constitute a spontaneous response from human speakers to juvenile characteristics shared by vertebrate newborns, or it might represent the speaker’s attempt at engaging an interaction with nonverbal beings.


Should We Use Pet-Directed Speech?

The baby schema hypothesis suggests that the human needs to restrict the use of pet-directed speech to the young puppy. In contrast, the learning hypothesis suggests that the speaker needs to continue using dog-directed speech with adult dogs because they do not develop language. The functional value of pet-directed speech still remains unknown. The assumption that a dog responds more to pet-directed speech than to normal speech has not been completely tested.

So, the next time you feel silly talking to your dog like they’re a baby, be proud. It’s science, after all! It’s fun to talk to your dog like that. It feels good. It is somehow natural and just rolls off the tongue. It almost seems like they bask in it. So, let them!



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