Why do we speak "baby" to dogs?

Have you ever noticed that when we speak to dogs, we often use a register very close to “baby talk?” While the reasons behind this “analogy” haven't been clearly determined, a study led by the ENES team (Sensorial Neuro-Ethology Team) provide some preliminary answers to the question: why do we use 'baby talk' with dogs?

When adults speak to infants, they generally change intonation (a higher pitch), slow their speech, and articulate vowels. These characteristics of “baby talk” have the positive effect of maintaining the infant’s engagement and attention. Moreover, speaking to babies in this register has been shown to increase their brain activity. For thousands of years, dogs and humans have forged close relationships that are reflected through many aspects of mutual understanding and empathy. So much so that we sometimes also speak to our pets… like babies! According to the authors, dog talk may be “a spontaneous response to juvenile characteristics… or an attempt to facilitate interactions with non-verbal listeners.” The first hypothesis means that we should only use baby talk with puppies, while the second would mean that we should also use it with adult dogs. In order to determine whether speaking dog depends on the animal’s age and whether it increases the dog’s attention, the ENES team (Jean Monnet University, Saint-Etienne), specializing in animal "languages," conducted two experiments.

In the first, the researchers recorded human speakers talking to dogs of different ages (30 classified as "puppies," 30 classified as "adults," and 30 classified as "old." The participants (30 women) were asked to say the following sentences: “Hello cutie!” “How’s that blanket?” “Who’s a good dog?” “Come here sweetie pie!” “That’s a good dog. What a good dog!” For each participant, the researchers obtained 4 recordings (3 to the different dogs and 1 neutral or control spoken to an adult human). The vocal analysis of the recordings shows that the register used when speaking to the dogs closely resembles “baby talk” regardless of the animal’s age, though the tone is accentuated when speaking to puppies.

In the second experiment, the scientists played the recordings to real dogs of different ages. Each of them was placed in a comfortable room in which each sentence was pronounced via speakers either in "dog talk" or in "normal" speech. The results (filmed) were as follows: none of the dogs tested showed any interest for the "normal" recording. However, when they heard “dog talk,” the puppies became very excited, barked and got closer to the speaker, while the adult dogs showed no reaction. Why are older dogs no longer receptive to “dog talk?” According to the authors, it may be because they are waiting for other signs from us (gestures) and/or they only respond to familiar voices.

In conclusion, just like "dog talk," it’s likely that humans, motivated by the desire to communicate effectively with a being not yet mastering language, use "baby talk." This same strategy is also used when a speaker senses that a listener has language difficulties. As to whether this "animal language” or “baby language” is used consciously or unconsciously, the question remains.
Source: Ben-Aderet T., Gallego-Abenza M, Reby D, Mathevon N., Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it? In Proceedings of the Royal Society of London series B. 11 January 2017.


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