When we speak to babies, we talk kind of like babies too. Our voices go all high-pitched, and we deliver sing-songy, sweet-sounding gibberish. There is actually an official, scientific term for this: infant-directed speech.
Contrary to beliefs held by people who play Beethoven to their kid while it's still in the womb, talking to your baby like an actual baby—not a full-grown adult—is very good for them. Babies have been shown to prefer infant-directed speech to adult-directed speech, and key developmental outcomes—like speech perception, and adult–infant social interaction—are also better facilitated by infant-directed speech.
As it turns out, dogs feel quite similarly.
A new study published yesterday in journal Proceedings of the Biological Society found that while puppies enjoy this high-pitched baby-talk, older dogs (much like their human counterparts) don't feel so enthused.
To discover this, researchers recorded human adults speaking to dogs of all ages: from puppies through to more elderly mutts. They found that no matter what the dog's age, people spoke in the same way they would to a baby. Their annunciation slowed down, their tone became more melodic, and they pitched their voices higher, especially high when addressing puppies. The study called this "dog-directed speech."
When those audio recordings were played back to canines young and old, "only puppies were highly responsive to dog-directed speech." They got pretty hyped up. As the report put it, at a young age, there is a "functional value" to this speech pattern: it makes pups pay attention.
Meanwhile, older dogs did not particularly care. Researchers noted "the behavioural reaction of adult dogs to the playback was not significantly influenced by the pitch of speech sequence." In fact, their responses were basically the exact same when addressed with adult-directed speech. Unlike puppies and human babies, they don't really have a preference, and researches found this "rather unexpected."
Is it because they're more mature? It is because they're just more selective about who they respond to? These are the questions scientists will be looking to next.
They're also wondering why we feel compelled to use dog-directed speech in the first place. They suspect it's not just because puppies cue the same protective, gentle feelings within us as babies do, as previously hypothesised. After all, we talk to adult dogs with the speech pattern too, even when it doesn't actually better engage them.
The researchers involved believe it has something to do with a switch we make, into "non-speaking listener" mode. That is, whenever we're talking to a listener who we feel can't fully understand us, human or not, we change the way we talk.
From here, we could look at developing ways to speak to our grown-up pets that they really enjoy, and find ways to better train and connect with our beloved pups.
So hey, maybe your dog is only ignoring you because you're talking to it like a child—and evidently, it knows it's better than that.
Photography via Flickr user Loren Chipman