Research on baby language comes from the journal Animal Cognition. In their study, the scientists asked two people to sit on their lap and have recordings heard in their own voices.
Alex Benjamin, a doctoral candidate at the University of York in the United Kingdom and co-author of the study, recruited 37 dogs in York, England. They brought the dogs into a room (on a leash) with the two people. The dogs then heard two types of recorded speeches: a normal, conversational tone and a “dog-led speech”.” This dog-led speech was what we defined as baby talk. In the recording, the “baby talk” used words relevant to the dog, such as “spoil” and “walk.”
“Dogs, we think, are very sensitive to changes in acoustic properties – such as the sex of the person, the size of the person – which is why the recording of the speech always corresponded to the person holding the speaker,” he said. Benjamin told National Geographic.
After people listened to the recording, the researchers measured the time the dog spent looking at each person. They also examined the time the puppies spent with each person after being put on a leash.
Benjamin explained the results: “Dogs spent more time looking at the person using dog-directed language [baby talk]. And they chose on average to spend more time with the person who had recently produced this kind of voice register.”
Dr. Benjamin told Science Daily: “We found that adult dogs were more likely to want to interact and spend time with the speaker who uses a dog-led speech with dog-related content than those who use a speech directed by an adult with no dog-related content.
“When we mixed the two types of speech and content, the dogs showed no preference for one speaker over the other. This suggests that adult dogs need to hear words related to dogs spoken in a high emotional voice to find them relevant.”
The study does not tell us if this preference is learned or if puppies are born with it. This is, of course, the classic question of nature versus education. Perhaps they like high-pitched sounds at birth, or perhaps they have learned a positive association with baby language because it is often used when a dog receives positive attention or a treat.
People who have a dog, health professionals and lifeguards can use this knowledge with their canine friends. If they use the baby talk when interacting with dogs and talking about interesting things, the dog will be attentive. And, perhaps, dogs will understand the interaction better.
And the next time someone asks you about using a baby voice to communicate with your puppy, tell him that science says it helps your dog understand you better.