Humans are talkers. We talk to each other; we talk to ourselves; and, most importantly, we talk to our pets. If you're a pet owner or have ever been to the home of a pet owner, this fact probably comes as no surprise. Dog owners, especially, delight in talking to our dogs, usually in a higher-pitched voices than we use to talk to other humans.
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But do dogs understand us? Does talking to your dog carry any benefits for them?
Do dogs like baby talk?
First of all, why do we talk to our dogs in those weird, high voices? It's probably because they remind us of human babies. Dogs' large eyes and cute faces trigger a rush of dopamine, "the feel-good chemical," in our brains, and make us want to take care of them.
Scientists have found that people speak to dogs and babies in similar ways, using a high-pitch register and high frequencies of present-tense verbs and repetitiveness, among other tendencies. Across cultures, people talk to domesticated animals in these higher, gentler voices — we seem to do it instinctively.
For their part, some dogs seem to respond to high pitched voices. In her book The Dog Rules, trainer Kyra Sundance notes that a high-pitched, "singsongy" voice communicates that an animal is not a threat. So it makes sense that we would employ it to communicate with our dogs.
Do dogs understand us?
Dogs clearly understand some of what we communicate to them. We're not completely sure to what degree they understand language, but we believe the average dog can learn around 165 words. Your dog probably responds with excitement to the word "walk," but likely doesn't respond much to more complex thoughts, like "how did you sleep last night?" (I continue to ask my dog this question every morning. I am confident that one day I will get an answer.)
Dogs are also great observers of human behavior, having co-evolved with us for tens of thousands of years. So while they understand some of our words, they're also taking into account body language, tone, and other factors.
Health and behavioral benefits of talking to your dog.
There is a disappointing lack of research around whether talking to our dogs makes them happy. Obviously, we like to do it, and we're probably going to keep talking to them regardless. But try as I might, I couldn't find any studies that said "talking to your dogs makes them live forever," or even whether it impacts their health or behavior.
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Since dogs understand our facial expressions and tone of voice, it stands to reason that talking to them in a happy voice makes them feel happier, and talking to them in a stern voice makes them feel less happy. Anecdotally, many dog owners report that their dogs seem to like being talked to in a happy tone (duh). And as you probably know, it's pretty easy to get a dog amped up by asking excitedly if they want to go for a walk.
So while most dog owners would probably argue that yes, talking to your dog (in a happy tone) increases their happiness level, there is no scientific research to back this theory up.
Nicholas Epley, behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago, says that our tendency to anthropomorphize animals and other objects is a byproduct of humans being a "uniquely smart" species. Many pet owners interpreted this statement to mean "talking to your pets is a sign of your intelligence," which is not exactly true. However, it's interesting to note that the practice of anthropomorphizing is unique to humans. This tendency might imply that talking to our dogs is really for us, not for them. But even if it's just for us, talking to our dogs clearly helps us bond with them. So go ahead, talk their ears off.