Research Shows Puppies Love Baby Talk
A new study shows that people talk to puppies like they talk to babies and that, like infants, puppies are very responsive to so-called baby talk.
Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?! A study published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B revealed that puppies respond more readily to baby talk than to a normal tone of voice.
Compared with speaking to adults, people speaking to babies tend to use a speech pattern marked by a higher and more variable pitch, slower tempo, and clearer articulation of vowel sounds. Study researchers set out to determine whether pet-directed speech changes based on the age of the dog being spoken to and whether dogs of different ages respond differently to so-called “baby talk.”
Part 1: Does Speech Pattern Change According to the Age of the Dog?
Each study participant (n = 30 women) was shown 3 photographs—one of a puppy, one of an adult dog, and one of a visibly old dog—and was asked to recite specific phrases, such as, “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy?” to each image. Participants were also asked to repeat the phrases to the study investigator, who served as a control for human-directed speech. All phrases were recorded.
The researchers found that when the participants spoke to dogs of any age, they did so with a higher pitch and a slower tempo than a typical speaking voice. This pitch was slightly more pronounced when participants spoke to the photographs of puppies.
Specifically, investigators discovered that the participants’ pitch increased by an average of 21% with puppies, 13% with old dogs, and 11% with adult dogs compared the pitch used when speaking to the human investigator.
Part 2: Do Dogs of Different Ages Respond Differently to “Baby Talk”?
The research team then played the recordings for puppies and adult dogs at an animal shelter in New York City as well as for adult dogs kept as family pets in France and Italy (where the recordings were in French and Italian, respectively), and the dogs’ reactions were assessed using 11 behavioral measurements.
Of the puppies, 90% responded more to the puppy-directed speech than to the human-directed speech. They reacted quicker, looked at the speaker more frequently, and approached the speaker more closely and for longer periods of time. The puppies reacted almost as animatedly to the adult dog—directed speech, showing that both types of “dog talk” elicited stimulating effects.
The adult dogs, on the other hand, showed no preference between “baby talk” and human-directed speech; this was true of both shelter dogs and family dogs. The authors theorized that this may be due to the dogs’ need for interaction with the human who is speaking. Perhaps with the incorporation of other communication cues these adult dogs would have reacted to the baby talk voice.
The fact that people use “baby talk” to communicate with dogs of all ages “suggests that this particular register of speech is used to engage interaction with a non-speaking, rather than just a juvenile listener.” This finding is true to the extent that these baby talk tactics are also used with people who may not fully understand us, such as elderly people or foreigners.