How to Talk to Your Dog, According to Science
Baby talk works on puppies. As for adult dogs, that’s still up for debate.
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Raise your hand if you talk to your dog. We all do it — but do our dogs understand us? Turns out, they just might. Research shows that dogs really do understand us in ways that no other species can. A study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that young puppies respond best to a certain type of human speech called “dog-directed speech.”
What is Dog-Directed Speech?
There is already quite a lot of research showing that the way we communicate with dogs is different from the way we communicate with other humans. When we talk to dogs, we use dog-directed speech, meaning we change the structure of our sentences, shortening and simplifying them. We also tend to speak with a higher pitch in our voices. (We might also speak this way when we’re not sure we’re understood, or when talking to young children.)
The Proceedings of the Royal Society B study found that we use an even higher pitch when talking to puppies, and that it actually helps them pay closer attention. It also shows that talking to puppies in those short, segmented sentences makes them react and attend more to their parents than regular speech.
Testing Dog-Directed Speech
In the study, researchers used “playback” experiments in which they made recordings of humans repeating the phrase, “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!” Each time, the speaker was asked to look at photos of either puppies, adult dogs, old dogs, or at no photos. Analyzing the recordings showed that volunteers spoke to each photo differently, depending on the dog’s age.
The researchers then played the recordings back to both puppies and adult dogs and recorded their behavior in response. They found that the puppies responded to the dog-directed speech made by the participants while they looked at dog photos, whereas older dogs did not. However, it’s worth pointing out that other studies have recorded dogs’ reactions to human voices in live interactions — including work I have done — and they suggest that dog-directed speech can be useful for communicating with canines of any age.
Communicating with Dogs Through Gestures
It’s also been proven (and most pet parents know) that dogs understand and respond to physical gestures — such as pointing — in ways other species cannot. To test this with your dog, you can place two identical cups covering small pieces of food in front of them, making sure they can’t see the food. Then, point to one of the cups while establishing eye contact with your dog. They will follow your gesture to the cup and explore it, expecting to find something underneath.
That happens because dogs understand gestures as an attempt to communicate. It’s fascinating because not even chimpanzees (humans’ closest living relatives) seem to understand that we communicate this way, nor do dogs’ closest relatives, wolves — even if they’re domesticated. This has led to the idea that dogs’ skills and behaviors in this area are actually adaptations to the human environment. That means living in close contact with humans for over 30,000 years has led dogs to evolve communication skills that are effectively equal to those of human children.
But there are significant differences in how dogs understand our communication and how children do. The theory is that dogs, unlike children, view human pointing as a mild command telling them where to go, rather than a way of transferring information. When you point for a child, on the other hand, they think you are informing them of something.
Although this research is fascinating, none of it comes as a great surprise, given that dogs have been used for thousands of years to help with herding and hunting, during which they covered great distances guided by gestural instructions. The latest research, however, affirms that they can understand us humans on a deeper level, recognizing a special sensitivity in our voices. So the next time you talk to your dog, know that they really are hearing you.
Lili Chin’s book Doggie Language illustrates how dogs communicate — beyond ear perks and tail wags.
Cognitive Science professor Dr. Federico Rossano on how Bunny, TikTok’s “talking” dog, is sparking change in how we communicate with our pets.
Juliane Kaminski, PhD
Juliane Kaminski is the director of Dog Cognition Center in Portsmouth, UK, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Portsmouth, on the scientific advisory board at Dognition, and founder of the Max Planck Institute's Dog Cognition Study Center — where she made a number of exciting discoveries about how dogs solve problems. and consults for .