A recent study from scientists at the University of York, England, published in the journal “Animal Cognition,” found that adopting a baby-like tone when talking to dogs can help owners bond with their pets, much in the same way that babies bond with their parents.
The study first defined the different types of speech that was going to be analyzed. The first type of speech was infant-directed speech, or IDS, which was defined as “a special speech register thought to aid language acquisition and improve affiliation in human infants.” IDS is identified easily by its elevated pitch, exaggerated intonation and high affect. This is seen across various languages including English, Russian, Swedish and Japanese, and is automatically produced without having to be learned. The second type of speech, dog-directed speech, or DDS, shares some of the properties of IDS. Adult-directed speech, or ADS, was the last type, and is the most obvious of the three as it is the type all linguistically competent adults use.
What is curious is that DDS is used in Western societies in much of the same way. There is an elevated pitch and exaggerated emotional intonation when compared to ADS. While IDS can sometimes be rationalized to ease babies into the language that they will adopt as they grow older, this does not apply to dogs. This raises the question as to why humans utilize this type of speech when talking to their dogs.
Thirty-seven dogs were involved in the first part of the study. The dogs were put in a room where they were allowed to explore for a minute before being put on a leash. Two experimenters then entered the room and stopped in front of and equal distances from the dog. Both experimenters were sitting on the ground to ensure that neither of them could influence the results of the experiment with their body language. The dogs received no interaction from either experimenter. Each experimenter had a speaker in front of them, which differed only in that one played ADS while the other played DDS.
The speaker included phrases such as “You’re a good dog” and “Shall we go for a walk?” The speaker said irrelevant dog phrases such as “I went to the cinema last night.” The experimenters covered their mouths to hide the fact that they were not the people whose voices were playing. While the audio stimulus was present, the dogs were kept on the leash. Afterward, they could roam around the room and approach the experimenters if they liked.
This part of the study found that dogs had a significant preference for DDS regardless of whatever played from the other speaker.
Thirty-two dogs were involved in the second part of the study. The procedure here was identical to that in the first part. The only difference was in the actual content of the words that the dogs were presented with and the prosody, or the use of rhythmic intonation, of those words. The researchers here tried to determine whether dog-specific words in DDS elicited more of a reaction than other words. The study found neither content nor prosody had any effect on what was found in the first part of the study.
The results clearly showed that naturalistic DDS fulfills a “dual function of improving attention and increasing social bonding.” This fits with the current idea of infant research, which suggests that IDS is used for language acquisition, but it is also crucial for developing meaningful social relationships with caregivers.
Justin Bischof, a freshman who is a prospective actuarial science major and proud owner of an English springer spaniel, deemed the findings a boon for both dogs and caregivers. He stated that, “I say it’s beneficial to both parties. [It] leads to some important bonding opportunities.”
Meanwhile, Hyosik Shin, an undecided freshman with two cats, considers the findings nothing new. She stated that, “This isn’t very surprising because it is to be expected that dogs learn to associate certain voices with certain rewards or punishments. I do the same thing with my cats and they respond in the same way. I’m sure if you were to yell at your dog whenever they were to do something good, the dog would also associate that with positive rewards.”