A recent study found that dogs respond better to women speaking in baby talk compared to talking in ordinary human language and also compared to men talking to them. And the reason for this is that – and this is my view – women are more used to speaking in baby language when talking to their babies and therefore they are more proficient at talking in that kind of way compared to men. And it might be fair to say that women are less self-conscious about using baby-talk than men which means they use it more freely and with more proficiency. That also is my opinion.
And baby talk has a certain intonation to it with certain patterns and stresses which dogs respond well to. The patterns of stress and intonation in speech is called ‘prosody’. This is the word that the scientists used in their report.
The paragraph above contains my interpretation of the study. Below the video I provide some detail as reported on the Phys.org website.
Video summarising the research
Fortunately, there is an excellent video on YouTube which summarises this research which you can see below. That video might be enough for most readers to understand the findings of this research as it is well produced.
The Phys.org headline is that, “Dog brains are tuned to dog-directed speech spoken by women”. “Dog-directed speech” is a reference to a kind of baby-talk which is a simplified sort of language with a certain emphasis to get a baby to understand what you’re saying and the same applies to dogs. In fact, it is clear to me that this kind of speech is going to be effective when talking to domestic cats as well. Although the study did not include domestic cats.
The researchers work out of the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, the Research Centre for Natural Sciences and the Eötvös Loránd Research Network. They say that there is a similarity between the way infant and dog brains respond to human speech.
Infant and dog-directed speech
Both dogs and infants have limited “linguistic competence”. In other words, they are less able than adult humans to understand communication through the voice of adults using language. In order to be understood and to grab the attention of the infant or the dog, adults speak “with a specific speech-style characterised by exaggerated prosody”. This is infant-directed speech. In other words, it is speech by an adult human to a child in a certain style to try and get them to understand better. And infants are attuned up to this kind of speech. And, so are dogs which is the conclusion of the study.
They measured dog brain activity via “functional magnetic resonance imaging” (fMRI). They had dogs listening to 12 men and 12 women speaking in adult human language, infant-directed speech and dog-directed speech.
The conclusion was that “exaggerated prosody contributes to efficient speech processing in a nonhuman species skilled at relying on different speech cues e.g., follow verbal commands”.
The MRI scans showed that the dogs’ auditory brain regions responded better to dog and infant-directed speech compared to adult-directed speech. This is the first-time researchers have discovered new evidence that dog brains are attuned to speech directed at them specifically.
Returning to the top of the article, they found that when a woman speaks to a dog their brain was more active as per the MRI scan indicating that they respond better than when a man speaks to a dog. But this, in my view, is because women are more proficient at talking in baby speak and therefore, they can use that type of speech pattern and emphasis to good use when talking to their family dog.
Link to study
More information: Anna Gergely et al, Dog brains are sensitive to infant- and dog-directed prosody, Communications Biology (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s42003-023-05217-y
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