If you’ve ever played with a puppy, you’ve probably talked to it like you’d speak to a baby. If you’ve ever talked baby talk to a puppy, you surely had a very un-fun person ask you why you were doing that. The next time this happens you can just say “Science!” and continue to play with your dog.
A study published in Proceedings of Royal Society B showed some fascinating results about the effects of baby talk on dogs of different ages. The study was conducted by having female volunteers record the line “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!” while looking at pictures of puppies, adult dogs, old dogs, and humans.
While there was little change in the pitch while looking at other humans, there was a noticeable difference when looking at the pictures of dogs. On average, the pitch increased by 13 percent for the old dogs, 11 percent for the adult dogs, and a whopping 21 percent for the puppies.
The scientists then played the recordings over the loudspeaker in an animal shelter in New York City. Upon hearing these recordings the puppies rushed over to the loudspeaker and stayed there for a while. Furthermore, they reacted better to the puppy recordings than to the human recordings, staying at the loudspeaker for longer.
The adult dogs reacted similarly to both the recording for adult dogs and the recording for humans. In both cases, the recordings were mostly ignored. They would glance over to the loud speaker and then go back to whatever they were doing before. Nicolas Mathevon, co-author of the study, speculates that “[M]aybe older dogs do not react that way because they are just more choosy and they want only to react with a familiar person.”
This study was then replicated in France and Italy with French and Italian speakers, respectively, where it achieved the same results.
Picture of French Dog Shelter (Maybe)
So what does this all mean? An early theory has to do to do with the “Baby Schema” which is that humans evolved to find things like big eyes cute as a way to ensure early humans had a desire to take care of there offspring. As a result, we have a desire to care for other animals that also have a classically cute appearance.
However, this does not seem to be the real reason why we speak this way to puppies. According to Mathevon:
One of the hypotheses was that we humans use this dog-directed speech because we are sensitive to the baby cues that come from the face of a small baby [animal] as we are sensitive to the faces of our babies. But actually our study demonstrates that we use pet-directed speech or infant-directed speech not only because of that but maybe we use this kind of speech pattern when we want to engage and interact with a non-speaking listener. Maybe this speaking strategy is used in any context when we feel that the listener may not fully master the language or has difficulty to understand us.
So be sure to use a high pitched voice when you explain this to your pup tonight. Otherwise they might get confused.