Dog sitting across from girl on picnic table (Picture Credit: Getty Images) As dog lovers, we’re all probably guilty of using baby talk around our pups. We can’t help it. They’re just so cute, and when we see cute things, sometimes our voices get higher, we use simple language, and we make up words and nonsense sounds. For the most part, our dogs don’t seem to mind us talking like that. Tone matters a lot, and dogs can tell when we’re upset, angry, happy, or ready to give treats and rewards, and baby talk is almost always followed by signs of affection. Any dog parent can tell you that their dog prefers baby talk to stern words and yelling. But do dogs enjoy being talked to like babies, and do they benefit from such speech? How do dogs like for us to talk to them?

‘Baby Talk’ Is Dog-Directed Speech

When we raise the pitch of our voices and simplify our language to address our pooches, it’s called “dog-directed speech.” It’s very similar to the way that we talk to babies. Research suggests that human babies do benefit from this type of speech. It seems to capture their attention more easily and improve their focus on the speaker’s words. Babies who are spoken to in baby-directed speech tend to start mimicking vowel sounds and develop a vocabulary more quickly. If the same were true for puppies and dogs, we’d likely see that dog-directed speech would hold their attention and improve their understanding more so than the normal speaking voice we use when addressing other adult humans. Does the science back up that claim?

What Does Science Say?

Woman with her dog in nature (Picture Credit: Getty Images) Research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that dog-directed speech does, in fact, help puppies pay more attention to the humans who are talking to them. Researchers played several different recordings of humans using different tones to say the same phrase and found that puppies responded most to the high-pitched, dog-directed tone than other recordings. This is useful to know, as it can help those who wish to train a puppy to follow commands. Further research from the University of York shows that dogs of any age are more responsive to dog-directed speech. The experiment also showed that it didn’t just matter how humans said things, but what they said made a difference, too. For this study, researchers had humans say common conversational phrases, like “I went to the cinema last night,” to dogs in a normal voice and a dog-directed tone. Dogs responded more positively to the dog-directed tone. Then the researchers had humans say common conversational phrases in a dog- directed tone, then speak in the same tone with dog-related content and words. The dogs responded to the dog-related content most. So it doesn’t just matter how we say things. Dogs at least have some idea of what we are saying, too. They respond best when humans combine dog-directed speech with dog-related content. They want to spend time with humans who speak that way the most.

Talking Strengthens Your Bond

Being able to communicate with your dog is the foundation for strengthening your bond. It’s very beneficial for training purposes and expressing your desires to your pup. Dogs are good at understanding humans. They can read our emotions, follow our instructions, and anticipate our wants. It’s one of the many reasons we love them so much. As the research shows, speaking to dogs in dog-directed speech really does make them want to spend more time with us, and that’s a good thing. Dogs are also good at associating your tone with your actions. When you speak to them in cheerful dog-directed speech, they probably know that affection and rewards will soon follow. When you’re stern, they know that you may be rebuking them for their behavior. The next time you speak to your dog, imagine it from their perspective. What associations have they formed with your speech and your words? Do they know the word “vet?” How about “bath?” Do they know “walk” or “treat?” Knowing how your dog reacts to your tone and words can help you give them comfort when things are frightening or when they get anxious. It can also help you share in their joy and excitement.

Non-Verbal Communication Is Important Too!

Shot of a man playing with his dog at home (Picture Credit: Getty Images) With all the research and personal experiences we have when it comes to speaking to our dogs, we might start to underestimate the importance of non-verbal communication. When you think about it, there are deaf dogs and deaf humans who do not rely on speech to communicate with one another, yet they still have bonds that are just as strong as humans and dogs who do depend on speech. Dogs can understand sign language just as well as spoken language — sometimes even more easily. Is there a signed version of dog-directed speech that helps dogs pay more attention and strengthens their bond with humans? I couldn’t find any studies that even ask that question, but it’s certainly something to think about, as it could have implications for the way we communicate to our dogs non-verbally. Dogs also use non-verbal communication to find out how we’re feeling. They can smell the chemicals we release when we are sick, healthy, happy, anxious, excited, and more. They can learn to follow our body language and respond accordingly, just the same as they do for speech. In fact, one must wonder how much of dogs’ response to our speech is a reaction to the speech itself and how much of it is learned through associations. Could a dog learn to love being yelled at if it was always followed by affection and treats? Who knows? In the end, it isn’t of much consequence because dogs like what they like, whether it’s learned or innate. But asking that kind of question can help us further explore how we can most effectively communicate with our dogs and strengthen our relationships. When it comes down to it, non-verbal communication may be far more significant than verbal communication. Research published in the journal Physiology and Behavior looked at how dogs responded to greetings after being left alone for a period of time. Humans would either greet the dog with petting and verbal praise, just greet with verbal praise, or not greet the dog at all. Levels of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” were highest in dogs who got both pets and praise. So clearly, verbal communication is not the only key to making our dogs happy. We need to communicate in many ways to form relationships with our pups.

Your Dog Can Talk Back

Much of this article has been about the ways we communicate to dogs, but communication is a two-way street. We owe it to our dogs to learn how they talk back, as well. Dogs use their own verbal cues through vocalizations, but they also rely on body language. Sometimes our understanding of our dogs comes about naturally. For example, you can probably tell the difference between your dog begging to go out for a potty break versus your dog begging for food. Eventually, you spend enough time around each other to form an understanding without thinking about it. That’s a great, natural way to communicate with your pup, and maybe you don’t need anyone to tell you how to talk to your dog. All these studies and research efforts can, however, help you think about that communication more deeply. Maybe it can help you know when to use dog-directed speech to calm your dog, or maybe it can help you with training efforts. Maybe learning about dog body language can help you determine your dog’s needs more easily. Be open to learning about how you can talk to your dog and how your dog can talk back. Your bond with your dog may get stronger than ever if you do. Here are some resources on understanding the way dogs communicate:

  • Your Dog’s Ears Speak Volumes
  • Dog Licking And What It Means
  • Dog Growling: What It Means And What You Should Do
  • Speaking Dog
  • DogSpeak: Improving Communication Between You And Your Canine

Do you ever speak to your dog in a baby voice? How do you think your dog likes to be talked to? Let us know in the comments below!

Jane Flanagan K

What we say to our dogs is important. How we say it is crucial. Different tones of voice are used to distinguish between commands, corrections, and praise. Commands are given in a firm, strong tone of voice. No chanting please. Corrections get a little lower, sharper and growlier. Praise is more exuberant and excited — pleasant, but not so exuberant as to incite him to wiggle out of control. How to Talk to Your Dog Thinkstock All commands should be preceded by the dog’s name. How else will Rover know you’re talking to him? But even before that, you’re going to teach Rover to look at you. Trace a line with your index finger from Rover’s eyes to yours. As soon as he makes eye contact, talk to him and encourage him to sustain the eye contact for a few seconds with a “Good watch!” in a pleasant, upbeat tone of voice. You can also get Rover’s attention by taking a little tidbit of food after letting Rover sniff it, moving the food up to your eye level. When Rover looks up, praise him and give him the food treat. Now that you have his attention, he is ready to listen. Your dog’s mother did not repeat herself over and over again. Neither should you. Once the dog understands what the command means, it should only be said once, “Rover, sit!” If he continues to sniff the air, or otherwise ignore you, it’s “NO, sit!” (an instructive reprimand) and then if you must, place the dogging the sit position. When teaching a command for the first time, it is important to help the dog to be successful by luring him into the position. Dogs are not born with an innate understanding of words. They learn by associating words with actions. Be consistent! You should only ask the dog to do one thing at a time. If you ask your dog to “Sit down,” how is he to know which to do? “Sit” and “Down” are two different commands. Be specific with your commands. When you want him off the couch, don’t interchange commands like “down” and “off.” Make sure all family members are using the same commands; otherwise the confusion will delay training success. Above all, keep it positive. You’re communicating and building a relationship. You work for rewards (salary, bonuses, commissions), so will your dog! Vocabulary List WATCH ME or LOOK AT ME! Get your dog to focus on you and make eye contact. PHEWY/ECH/NO/WRONG! Wrong choice, the dog blew it. Should be said in a low, firm tone of voice. OUCH or IEEE! Stop that mouthing, it hurts. When your dog bit down too hard on his littermates, they yelped at him and stopped playing. GOOD DOG/WHAT A GOOD KID! Right choice. Should be said in an upbeat, happy tone of voice. You want the dog to know that what he did was wonderful and he should keep doing it. SIT! The most basic of all commands. Can be practiced before eating, at street corners, in elevators, whenever you need to get active control of your dog. DOWN! This means to lie down. Down is a very subordinate position so some bossy dogs may not readily comply. To be used when you want your dog to be comfortable or when you need control of a dog throwing a tantrum. Do not confuse this with “Off!” STAND! Use this when you want the dog to go from a sit or down and stand with all four feet on the ground. This is very useful at the vet’s office or at the curb on a rainy day. STAY! This means do not move from whatever position you are in. You may ask your dog to “sit stay,” “down stay,” etc. OKAY! Dog is released from whatever position you asked him to assume. He is done working until the next command is given. LET’S GO! This is the command for controlled walking, what you do on a regular basis with your dog. The dog may go out to the end of his six-foot leash and sniff around and do his thing but he may not drag you down the street or trip you by crisscrossing in front of or behind you. HEEL! This is a very precise position at your left side. The dog walks along beside you. If you stop, the dog stops. Heel is a good command to use on very crowded streets or when you want your dog very close, such as when there’s broken glass in your path. COME! When your dog hears this command, he should leave whatever he is doing and come to sit in front of you. Because this can be a lifesaving command, you should always give it in the most cheerful, inviting tones. Reserve a very special treat for teaching it and never use it to call your dog to you to do something he does not like. OFF! Use this for jumping up on either people, furniture, or counter tops. Don’t confuse this command with “down.” TAKE IT! Teach your dog to take food or toys using this command. The dog should wait until you give the “take it” command before putting the offered object in his mouth. DROP IT or OUT or GIVE! This means that the dog should spit out whatever is in his mouth. It is important to teach this command using a reward system or you can create an overly possessive dog. LEAVE IT! This tells your dog not to even think about picking up the object, to avert your eyes from the object, other dogs, rollerbladers, etc. Very useful on city streets. © ASPCA,1996 Courtesy of
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(212) 876-7700 Despite common misconceptions, dogs do not understand English. The way a dog learns, and consequently behaves, is by association. This means that their brains connect certain sounds (not words) to certain behaviours, activities, people, and objects. For example, the sound ‘sit’ means that their two-legged friend wishes them to fold their rear legs underneath themselves; the sound ‘dinner’ means their two-legged friend might be going to bring some food out shortly; the word ‘ball’ means their favourite round thing is going to be launched across the park. Below is a crash course in dog communication: remember that this sort of thing can take years to master, so if you’re having difficulties with your dog understanding you, why not book one of our group obedience classes?

Keep It Short & Simple

When we speak in sentences, dogs hear a jumble of sounds with no meaning. Over their lifetime some dogs build up an extraordinary vocabulary of sounds, but as soon as you string these sounds together, your pup will simply tune out. To them we are speaking a foreign language and they have no way to decode the message. It’s not just sentences that have the potential to complicate things: even telling your dog to ‘sit down’ instead of ‘sit’ qualifies as a different sound, and is more likely to confuse them. For this reason, when training our dogs it is best to assign commands which are a single syllable wherever possible. This leads to the least amount of confusion and your dog has the best chance at being successful. how to speak dog

No Need To Repeat

You must remember that ‘sit – sit – sit – sit’ is a completely different sound to ‘sit’. Repeating the communication will only confuse your dog more – your dog has mobile ears with 3x as many ear muscles as a human – they heard you the first time. Repeating a command isn’t necessary and it certainly won’t help you to communicate with your dog.

Remain Calm

You do not need to shout and gesticulate wildly to be understood by your dog. Your dog can pick up extremely subtle changes in your posture, tone, and signals. Simply changing your pitch of voice can have an effect on the message that your dog receives. High pitched sounds tend to signify excitement, and can be used to communicate happiness with the dog, or to liven a dog up during training. However, for the most part, commands should be issued using a clear, distinct, medium tone of voice to keep the dog relaxed and focused. A lower than normal tone of voice (similar in pitch to a growl) can be used to issue a verbal correction.

Consistency Is Key

It is crucial that we are consistent with the words that we use with our dogs. This consistency will enable the dog to form a stronger association between the sound and the desired behaviour, activity, person or object. If one day you say ‘come’ and the next day you say ‘here’ then your dog is essentially having to learn two different sounds that both relate to the same action, and he is only practising each one half as often. If you follow these few tips, be assured that you are giving your dog the best chance of understanding of your wishes. If your dog has learnt what a particular command signifies but chooses not to comply, then you may need to work on motivating your dog, building your leadership, or possibly desensitising your dog to particular distractions. In this case, you may benefit from our private in-home dog training.

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