It seems like it’s a natural instinct we have to baby talk anything and anyone we feel some kind of affection towards. It’s not only babies who find themselves on the receiving end of baby talk but they’re not alone, family, friends, and our pets also have to endure it. Due to how persistent baby talk is among dog owners, there have been studies conducted to try and figure out if they actually enjoy it or if we just enjoy doing it.
Most people who baby talk their dogs will insist that they love it, it’s one of the few ways to get my dog to do his windmill tail where he wags in circles but even I can’t be sure if he enjoys it or just loves the attention from it. Some dogs will get excited and wiggle their butts or even tilt their head and look super cute when you do it which just starts an endless cycle of baby talk because the cuter they are, the more we do it!
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Why Do We Use Baby Talk?
Baby talk is mostly associated with the way we talk to babies, hence the name. Lots of studies have been conducted as it was initially thought that the elongated annunciations of words actually help babies to start to learn speech. When baby talking, we tend to make some pretty strange noises while cooing at the cute baby but mixed in there are highly defined words that keep the baby’s attention and help them pick up on new terms and phrases.
Some studies have suggested that there may be a link between baby talk and babies learning however other studies have pointed out that in cultures where baby talk is not the norm, the developmental rate remains the same.
Whether baby talk helps out toddlers learn how to speak or not doesn’t really explain why we then also baby talk our dogs. It’s not like we can teach dogs how to speak so it doesn’t serve the same purpose. We know our dogs aren’t learning to talk, we also know they’re not babies so why do we do it?
It’s also worth noting that a dog’s age does not determine if we baby talk them or not, puppies and senior dogs are all recipients of the treatment.
It’s thought we persist in baby talking our dogs, not because they’re cute or baby like but because we perceive them as having a difficult time understanding us. Baby talk tends to be exaggerated and repetitive, so it’s likely we’ve learned that we get a much higher response rate from our dogs when we speak in a silly voice. As puppies, dogs are stimulated by exciting things and then learn that responding gives them a positive experience so the baby talk becomes rewarding in itself.
Can Dogs Recognize Words?
Baby talk is one element of the way we talk to dogs, our tone tends to be entirely different but there’s another thing we need to consider when trying to figure out if our dogs enjoy baby talk. Dog-directed speech is also an important part of communicating with our dogs and is part of why they enjoy us talking to them so much. Dog-directed speech simply means the phrases and words we say that our dogs seem to have some recognition of like walkies, treat, or bed.
That isn’t to say that puppies are born knowing treat means treat and walkies means they get to go out and explore, it’s in fact taught through conditioning.
Have you ever seen videos of highly trained dogs who know their toys by name? The owner will say something like “go fetch your yellow duck” and the dog will comb over a pile of different toys to find that specific toy? It is usually breeds like Border Collies, Golden Retrievers or Poodles that we see doing this and it’s not because they can think about what each toy is and pick the correct one based on their knowledge of the language.
It’s actually similar to basic training, these dogs are just able to learn more cues than sit, stay or heel.
To teach a dog to sit, we first teach the behavior by rewarding every time their bum touches the ground so they learn that this behavior pays well and they repeat it. Once you add the cue, they understand that you say that particular work, their bum hits the floor and they get a reward. You could train the behavior to any word you like for all they care, if you associate the sit behavior to the word Sunday then that’s what it means to them, they have no concept of actual language.
We may not be training our dogs to understand some other words but dogs will passively learn that when we say treat and then give them a treat after then they associate the two things together and become alert and excited when we say the word.
The Science Behind It
A study published in Animal Cognition focussed on trying to distinguish if animals liked baby talk and what part dog-directed speech plays in it.
During this study, scientists played recordings of people speaking to dogs. Some people spoke normally, some spoke in baby talk, some spoke regularly but used dog-directed speech like treat and walkies while others did not. Using recordings allowed the reactions to be measured consistently to exactly the same thing as everyone does baby talk a little differently so it allowed for more accurate results.
A dog’s reaction to the recording was measured by the time each dog spent looking for the person who spoke.
The research conducted found that dogs spent longer engaged in looking for the source of the voice when the recordings of baby talk were played. Similarly, they also paid more attention and spent longer searching when dog-directed speech was used however the baby talk seemed to play a more important role in engaging the dogs. Overall the best method for communication with your dog would be using a mix of both baby talk and words or phrases that your dog will recognize.
Other research carried out has found that dogs can have a preference for baby talk as young as 2 months old.
How To Baby Talk Your Dog?
So now we know that yes, dogs do have a preference for baby talk you might find yourself over-aware of how you talk to your own dogs. There’s no right or wrong way to talk to your dogs, if you don’t baby talk it doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t enjoy you talking to them. It could be fun to do your own little experiment and see if your dog might respond to baby talk, even when they’re not subject to it often.
The way we baby talk dogs and actual babies is a little different. We don’t put as much effort into annunciating individual words with our dogs because obviously, they aren’t going to start repeating them back. Instead, it’s mostly about the tone you use.
Whilst running puppy training classes, I noticed that the puppies consistently responded to their female owners faster or seemed to learn skills quicker. It is likely linked to having higher voices and generally being more excitable. One of the common issues owners had during classes was that their puppies seemed to be picking individual members of the family to take out most of their mouthing on and usually, this wasn’t the adult men with low voices.
They got a better reaction out of the children or wives so they kept mouthing them.
Dogs like excitable noises, if you talk to your dog in a higher pitched tone it will be more engaging to your dog but also used words they might recognize.
Bond Building with Your Dog
Baby talk can help build a bond with your dog through encouraging communication. The more interesting you are to your dog, the more responsive they will be to you. If you consider when you train your dog, you will likely use something like food or toys as a reward but eventually, you want that behavior to become self-rewarding and the bond you have with your dog is vital in this.
To demonstrate this I would play a game with owners teaching their puppies to recall. I would ask them to recall their puppy with their most rewarding treat as a reward but in a boring, monotone voice. Then, I could get them to be as exciting as they possibly could, and even when the food reward was not as high value, that extra excitement in their voice got their puppies returning quicker than ever.
Having strong, positive interactions with our dogs helps build a good and rewarding relationship with them. Scientific studies back up the theory that dogs do actually enjoy when we baby talk them so if you’re feeling a little self-conscious about doing it in public, at least you have the backing of up-to-date science to comfort you. So what are you waiting for?
Now you know you can get out there and start shamelessly baby talking your beloved dogs!