Talking to Dogs

Koala, a black Labrador, rests on her hammock-style dog bed
Photo by Deni Elliott

A newly published study finds that dogs pay attention to both the way we talk to them and to what we say. Alex Benjamin and Katie Slocombe’s ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they term “dog-directed speech,” or DDS, which is similar in tone and affect to baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study had played recorded human voices using baby talk and regular speech. The content of the speech was supposedly of interest to dogs: greetings and expressions of “good boy!” and “come here!” Puppies in this study showed greater interest than adult dogs. The earlier study had serious flaws, though, primarily that the dogs heard the voices while alone in a room. It’s not surprising that adult dogs didn’t respond to a disembodied “come here” or praise.

Benjamin and Slocombe’s study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. While they also used recorded speech, so that all dogs got the same stimuli, a matching researcher (gender-wise) was in the room and the dogs were able to approach and interact with the human. In the first experiment, the stimuli were:

  • DDS (higher pitched, more emotional speech) with dog-directed content
  • Human-directed speech with human-directed content (assumed to be uninteresting to dogs)

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