New research from psychologists at the University of York in the UK shows that dogs actually do pay more attention when you speak to them in the cutesy, who's-a-good-boy style that's the default of many pet owners.
Their two-part study, published in Animal Cognition, compared the responses of adult dogs to recordings of normal, adult-directed speech (ADS) and dog-directed speech (DDS) – a type of speech, similar to baby talk, that is higher in pitch, more musical, and includes simple affirmative phrases.
A previous study had suggested that puppies are more engaged after hearing disembodied DDS compared to ADS, but the preferential effect was not seen in adult dogs. Perhaps motivated by a great deal of real-world, tail-wagging evidence to the contrary, the York team decided to re-evaluate these findings using physically present people. They also sought to determine whether it is the content of the language or the way it is delivered (called prosody) that matters most.
For their first experiment, they placed one adult dog at a time (37 total) in a room with two seated, still, and expressionless people. A speaker placed on one person’s lap played a recording of DDS while the other played an ADS recording, at the same time initially and then again separately.
Here’s an ADS transcript example: "I went to the cinema last night and saw a really good film, it was really funny I really think you should go and see it."
Versus a DDS transcript example: "Oh you’re such a good dog… you gonna come here?... you gonna come? Come on then… come on… let’s go out… let's go for a walk…"
A third observer measured the dogs’ attention to the two “speakers” and quantified the time spent in proximity to each when they were allowed to approach the people afterward. On average, the dogs spent more time looking towards the DDS during the playback and were more likely to approach the DDS person afterward.
For the second phase of the study, the team presented 32 dogs with content-swapped stimuli: Adult-centric content with dog-centric prosody, and dog-centric content with adult-centric prosody. The team found no difference in dogs’ reactions to the mismatched speech types, leading them to conclude that neither content (including the powerful words “walk” and “out”) nor prosody are solely responsible for appealing to our canine companions.
“Overall, the results of this study suggest that naturalistic DDS, comprising of both dog-directed prosody and dog-relevant content words, improves dogs’ attention and may strengthen the [affectionate] bond between humans and their pets,” the authors wrote.
An interesting future study would be to investigate whether the preference for DDS is innate, as baby talk is for babies, or if it is simply learned by dogs observing their foolish owners.