Want to Bond With Your Dog? Use ‘Dog Speak’

bonding with dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Speaking in a high-pitched, exaggerated tone or “dog speak,” may capture your dog’s attention much more so than your regular voice
  • Dogs were more likely to want to interact with people who spoke to them using dog speak and used dog-related content, such as “you’re a good boy”
  • Prior research found that using a high-pitched, exaggerated tone when speaking to puppies led to improved engagement, but the same didn’t hold true for adult dogs
  • The featured study found adult dogs, too, are smitten by dog speak; the disparity could be because prior experiments used human voices broadcast over a speaker whereas the featured study used people speaking directly to dogs — a more natural approach
  • If you want to increase bonding with your dog or encourage her to learn a new behavior, speaking in a positive, upbeat tone is essential

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Many parents naturally adopt a high-pitched tone of voice, otherwise known as baby talk, when speaking to their infants, and doing so is thought to improve bonding as well as language acquisition for the baby. It turns out the very similar tone many doggy parents use when speaking to their “fur babies” may impart similar benefits, at least in terms of bonding. Such “dog speak,” as researchers called it, may capture your pup’s attention much more so than your regular voice.

In fact, prior research found that using a high-pitched, exaggerated tone when speaking to puppies led to improved engagement, but the same didn’t hold true for adult dogs.1 In the featured study, published in the journal Animal Cognition,2 however, even adult dogs were seemingly smitten with dog speak. The disparity could be because prior experiments used human voices broadcast over a speaker whereas the featured study used people speaking directly to dogs — a more natural approach.

“This high-pitched rhythmic speech is common in human interactions with dogs in western cultures, but there isn’t a great deal known about whether it benefits a dog in the same way that it does a baby,” study author Katie Slocombe, Ph.D., from the University of York’s department of psychology said in a news release. “We wanted to look at this question and see whether social bonding between animals and humans was influenced by the type and content of the communication.”3

Dogs Want to Spend More Time With People Who Use Dog Speak

During the study, dogs listened as humans spoke to them using various forms of speech, including dog speak (or dog-directed speech), which entailed a high-pitched emotional tone along with phrases a dog might understand, such as “you’re a good dog” and “shall we go for a walk?” Adult-directed speech, which included a normal tone and content not related to dogs, such as “I went to the cinema last night,” was also tested.

The researchers then switched up the variations, using non-dog-related words with dog speak and dog-related words with the adult-directed speech. During each interaction, the dogs’ attention was measured and they were then allowed to decide which person they’d rather spend time with — the one using dog speak or adult-directed speech. The dogs showed a clear preference, and dog speak was the easy favorite. Study author Alex Benjamin, a Ph.D. student from the University of York, explained:4

“We found that adult dogs were more likely to want to interact and spend time with the speaker that used dog-directed speech with dog-related content, than they did those that used adult-directed speech with no dog-related content.

When we mixed-up the two types of speech and content, the dogs showed no preference for one speaker over the other. This suggests that adult dogs need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant.”

Why Using an Upbeat Tone When Praising Your Dog Is so Important

Whether you’re trying to train your dog some basic manners or simply bond with your pet, the way you speak your praises is equally as important as what you say — and possibly more so. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans have revealed that the reward center (the region of the brain that processes enjoyable sensations) of dogs' brains was strongly triggered by praise — but only when the praise was spoken in an encouraging, upbeat tone.5

Interestingly, the dogs in the study interpreted not only the tone in which the words were said but also seemed to know the difference between positive and neutral words. For example, when the trainer said "good boy" in a neutral tone, or "however" in either a positive or neutral tone, the result was the same — the dogs' reward centers didn't light up. So the fact is, singing your dog her praises using baby talk, dog speak or a similar facsimile matters to your dog, so much so that some dogs even prefer praise over food treats.6

Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, Ph.D. said in an Emory University news release, “Most of the dogs alternated between food and owner, but the dogs with the strongest neural response to praise chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time. It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”7

Research shows the bond between a person and a dog is similar to the bond experienced between an infant and his parents,8 but if you want to take your bonding sessions up a notch, try consciously altering the tone of your voice when speaking to your dog. A high-pitched, upbeat “baby-talk” form of praise is likely to elicit some major tail wagging from your pooch. She’ll let you know which voice is her favorite, and don’t worry about feeling silly — your dog won’t tell!