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The Power of "Puppy Talk"

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a dog laying on the couch with it's tongue out while being pet by a person

“Who’s a good boy? You’re a good boy!” “Come here, cutie pie!” “Oh, you’re such a pretty girl!” Do you talk like this to your four-legged friend? You’re not alone!

Lots of dog parents use puppy talk when they chat with their li’l pals and even their adult dogs. Puppy talk is that slow paced, high pitched, and musical sounding chatter, which is a lot like baby talk. So why do we talk to our four-legged friends as if they were babies? And do they even care?

Puppies care. Dogs don’t.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of Royal Society B showed that puppies lap up the puppy talk, while older dogs could care less. The researchers played phrases in puppy talk (also called dog-directed speech), and the puppies went nuts for it. They jumped around and rushed toward the source. When a normal speaking voice was used, those little furballs did not have the same enthusiastic reaction.

In contrast, adult dogs showed no difference in their reaction to baby talk versus a normal speaking voice. They would glance over at the source and simply ignore it. This raises an interesting question. If dogs don’t care about puppy talk, why do we continue to use it as they get older?

The study explains that it could be because this kind of talk is not so much about age, but about how we relate to non-speaking listeners. As babies get older and learn to speak, we gradually lay off the baby talk. Since dogs don’t gain these language skills, we keep on talking to them in puppy talk.

puppy being held by a woman with polka dot glasses

Why do we talk to our dogs?

Of course we need to talk to our dogs when we want them to do something, like jump down off the couch or get their leash for a walk. But lots of us talk to our dogs about many other things big and small, like our relationships, our jobs, the weather, or what happened during the day. The fact that they don’t really know what we’re saying doesn’t seem to matter much to us.

One reason we talk with our dogs is that our best friends make great listeners. They typically enjoy our attention and look right at us while we are talking to them. They aren’t prone to interrupting or disagreeing with us—although they can easily get distracted when a squirrel comes into view. They love us unconditionally and never judge. And they don’t try to dispense unwanted advice.

What do dogs hear when we talk?

Dogs can learn to recognize words like their names, basic commands, and nouns such as “ball” or “dinner.” It can take time, patience, and a lot of repetition to build a dog’s vocabulary. One Border Collie named Chaser was famous for being able to understand more than 1,000 words! He was featured on 60 Minutes as “the smartest dog in the world.” Service dogs are also often trained to understand a long list of words.

In addition to recognizing certain words, dogs can pick up a lot of information from our tone according to a study by Hungarian researchers. Dogs might not know exactly what you’re saying when you praise them, but they know it’s good from the happy and excited tone of your voice.

They also know when it’s bad. They might not understand the words, “Why did you knock over the garbage can?” but they can tell how you feel about it from your exasperated tone. Tone happens to be an important tool for dogs. When dogs in the study were praised in an enthusiastic voice, the reward center of their brains lit up. When they were praised in a neutral voice, this center did not respond.

Dogs can gather information from body language too. If you’re gesturing toward that knocked over garbage can, they probably know what you’re upset about.

black and white husky smiling on grass

What about dogs who can’t hear?

Dogs with hearing loss make wonderful companions, and they can be trained using sign language. This is great news for Dalmatians! Deafness is a commonly inherited issue for this breed, which might be why they don’t mind the wailing of fire truck sirens. Deafness can also be caused by an injury to the ear, an untreated ear infection, old age, or exposure to loud noises.

The first step in training a deaf dog is to teach them “watch me” so they know to look over at you to see what you’re signing. Once they’ve mastered this trick, you can help them learn the universal signs for sit, stay, roll over, and many more commands. You can find a list of signs at the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund website.

Tips on Communicating with Puppies

Based on that study published by Proceedings of Royal Society B, puppy talk is a great way to get a puppy’s full attention. It can also help you gain the trust of a shy puppy since it sounds friendly and non-threatening. Here are more tips on communicating with a puppy or timid dog:

  • Get down on their level. Little furballs can get nervous or upset if you talk to them while you are towering over them. Crouch or kneel down when you want to interact with your puppy.
  • Do what dogs do. When a dog wants to send a calming signal to another dog, they turn their head slightly and look to the side rather than staring right at the other dog. You can imitate this behavior to help avoid intimidating the puppy.
  • Let them sniff you. Hold out your hand with the palm open and let the puppy greet you with a dog’s typical greeting—by sniffing.
  • Follow their cues. Base your actions on the puppy’s reactions. If they back away, back off for a bit and approach them with a more gradual pace.
  • Be clear and consistent. You should start training your puppy right away using clear and consistent commands. If you use “down” and “off” interchangeably to tell your puppy to get down off your favorite chair, it could take longer for your puppy to catch on to what you’re saying.

Clicker training can also be a helpful tool for communicating with and training your pup. This kind of training uses the sound of a click to let your puppy know they did a good job.

golden retriever puppy with a red collar

Translating Dog Speak

Dogs don’t have the words to describe what they are thinking or feeling, but they definitely have ways of getting their point across. For instance:

  • Barks – Barking can mean all sorts of things. Your dog might be trying to tell you that someone is at the door, this thunder is scary, or they can’t wait to go for a walk. To translate a bark, you need to consider the context and tone. If your dog is barking excessively, you might need to consult your veterinarian or a certified animal behaviorist for help. Complete CoverageSM can help you cover the costs of treating behavioral issues like excessive barking.
  • Whines – Dogs will often whine when they want to get your attention. They might be telling you it is time to go out for a walk or that they are hungry and tired of waiting for their meal.
  • Whimpers and Yelps – These often communicate a painful situation, like when you accidentally step on their tail (ouch!). Dogs also whimper when they are scared or not feeling well. If your dog is whimpering with no known cause, a trip to the veterinarian is in order.
  • Howls – Dogs howl when they’re lonely as a way of trying to call their pack back to them. If your dog has separation anxiety, they might do a lot of howling, hoping to get you to return home. Some dogs howl when they hear people singing. They may be joining in or trying to block out an unpleasant sound!
  • Growls – Growling is your pup’s way of saying back off. It’s healthy for dogs to express their feelings through growling. It also gives you a chance to intervene in a situation before your dog gets more upset and may be tempted to bite.

Dogs also communicate with us through body language. We all know they wag their tails when they’re happy. They also crouch down on their front legs when they want us to play with them and perk up their ears when something piques their interest.

What about cats?

Cats are famous for being aloof, but they do typically have a special relationship with their cat parents. According to a study by the University of Tokyo, they can recognize the sound of their cat parent’s voice. The study also demonstrated that they don’t really care what we are saying. This might be because they have not evolved or been bred to follow the commands of people, like their canine counterparts.

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