Saturday 26 May 2018

Why do we use baby-speak to talk to our pets?

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

"Ohhhhh, look at yoooooou. Aren't you gooorgeouuus."

How do you talk to your dog? Most people use a different type of speech to our normal adult-to-adult way of talking. The way we speak to animals is very similar to the way we speak to babies: we use a higher and more variable pitch, a slower tempo and we articulate the vowels more clearly. "Ooh, whaaat a goooood boy you are", or something like that.

This has been designated by scientists as "infant-directed speech". When speaking to babies, this way of talking is known to engage and keep their attention more than regular speech, and this in turn has been shown to increase babies' brain activity, telling us that they are more engaged in what is being said to them. Scientists also think that infant-directed speech helps babies learn human language, by emphasising the way that words are said, slowly and clearly. It's believed that humans have evolved to speak in this way to babies as a way of optimising their language development.

So the question is: why do we speak to pets like this? And does it make any difference to them? Or are we just as well to talk to them using our normal voices. This is a topic that was investigated recently by a team of French scientists who studied the responses of puppies and adult dogs to humans speaking in different styles of speech.

First, though, what makes us speak to pets like this? Why don't we just use normal speech? The first reason is that increasingly, we have started to treat pets like children. In one recent study in the USA, more than 80% of pet owners referred to themselves as 'pet-parents'. In Ireland, we are resistant to that concept (although some Irish people do now call themselves "mummy" or "daddy" when talking to their pets). However many - even most - people do view their pets as part of their family, even if they are in a slightly different category to children.

This parenting attitude to pets has been proven by science. Another recent study used MRI to observe brain activity when adult women were shown photographs of their dog, and of their children: similar brain activation patterns were seen for both. Based on these observations, scientists now think there are two possible reasons why we use "baby speech" for dogs. First, we may subconsciously view them in the same way as we view our own young children, and second, we may use this type of speech whenever we talk to any being (human or animal) that cannot talk. If you think about it, when we struggle to speak to someone in a foreign country who does not speak English well, the type of speech we use sometimes has "baby speech" aspects to it (speaking slowly, clearly, and sometimes loudly).

So that's why we speak oddly to pets. But this leads on to another question: does speaking "infant-directed speech" to pets make any difference? While it may help children learn to speak, given that pets are never going to learn to talk, does the way we speak to them make any difference to them at all?

Scientists investigated this question recently, using a cleverly designed experiment. First, they recorded human voices while people were told to talk to pictures of puppies, and pictures of dogs. This confirmed that most people use "infant-directed speech" when talking to dogs of all ages.

Next, they performed playback experiments on puppies and adult dogs to test their reaction to pet-directed speech, comparing this with their reaction to speech directed to human adults. They recorded people saying the sentence: "Hi! Hello cutie! Who's a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a Good boy!" as if they were speaking to a pet. This was played back through a loudspeaker to dogs of all ages and compared with normal speech.

Their results showed that puppies reacted more positively, wanting to play, when infant-directed speech was used, compared to adult speech. In contrast, adult dogs reacted in exactly the same way to both types of speech.

What does this tell us? Well, first, it means that we don't need to use baby-speak when talking to adult dogs. You may still want to do this, but perhaps you should remind yourself that it makes no difference at all.

Second, and more importantly, this study is another confirmation that the brain of a puppy is very different to the brain of an adult dog. The results remind us that between the ages of 4 weeks and 14 weeks, puppies go through a golden period of being receptive to new experiences, learning about the world.

Why is this important? The biggest reason is that it stresses the need for puppies to be given adequate socialisation (exposure to different types of people and animals) and habituation (exposure to different types of physical environments, such as noises, objects and others). Pups that have this type of exposure grow up into more relaxed, calm individuals. Pups that do not have these experiences grow up as fearful, nervous, aggressive dogs that don't make good family pets.

And this is one of the main reasons why, when you are buying a puppy, you should choose a family-based home breeder rather than a puppy farmer.