Here's Why You Talk to Your Dog Like It's a Baby

New findings show that the high, sing-song voice that is characteristic of pet-directed speech makes dogs pay more attention to us.

Why do people talk to dogs with that sweet, lilting voice, as though they’re babies? We’ve all heard this sort of thing, or engaged in it ourselves: “Hi, buddy! Who’s a good boy? You are!!!”

Perhaps some us really do consider our pets to be like kids, or we get just as excited about them as our actual children. But there’s another aspect as well: New research shows that talking in this high, sing-song voice makes dogs pay more attention to us.

Humans and dogs have been best friends for thousands of years — we’ve hunted together, cuddled up together, and even genetically evolved together over the course of history. So it makes sense that we have our own way of communicating with each other, despite the fact that dogs can’t actually talk back.

It’s called pet-directed speech (PDS), and it’s very similar to how we talk to babies (which is called infant-directed speech, or IDS). Both speech patterns involve talking in slow, high-pitched voices, repeating words, and sounding more positive and happy than when speaking with other adults. IDS serves a specific purpose: it helps babies learn language, while also creating a bond between them and their caregivers. It also helps babies pay attention — much like PDS and dogs.

Researchers from the Université Paris Nanterre in France have just published a paper showing that dogs of all ages pay more attention to people who speak to them in PDS versus a normal “adult” voice.

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“Dogs and human infants do not have verbal language,” wrote the study’s lead author Sarah Jeannin to Seeker over email. “Our exacerbated vocal intonations play a central role in our communication to them.”

Jeannin and her colleagues had nine women speak directly to a dog, a baby, and an adult, and recorded their speech. The women asked all three subjects the same question: “Shall we go for a walk?” The researchers then played the recordings back to a different dog and monitored its attention span as it listened to each version of the question.

They found that adult dogs clearly paid more attention to pet-directed speech compared to adult-directed speech. Their attention to infant-directed speech fell in the middle. Puppies responded similarly to all human voices.

The study’s results didn’t surprise Jeannin.

“I decided to set up this experiment precisely because I noticed that dogs were more attentive to people when they were talking using this high-pitched voice,” she said.

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Her team’s findings directly refute another recent study, published in January, which said that only puppies respond to PDS, not adult dogs. Instead, Jeannin and the researchers found that while puppies are more responsive to the human voice in general, adult dogs also paid particular attention to humans who used PDS. The differences between the two experiments, Jeannin explained, include the fact that the first experiment had a small sample size and recorded women speaking to pictures of dogs rather than actual living animals.

The researchers think that dogs pay attention to PDS because it increases neural processing, which is how the brain makes sense of stimuli. This is the same way IDS works in babies. The researchers speculate that perhaps we evolved to speak to dogs in this way because our ancestors understood the importance of maintaining a close relationship between our two species.

So go ahead, talk to your dog in a cutesy baby voice. They certainly don't seem to mind.