There are of course exceptions to every rule, but most of the time, when faced with a baby, adults will find themselves slipping into a slower, higher-pitched, more repetition-prone version of their normal speech patterns: Hiiii there! Hiiii. Who’s the cutest baby? Is it you? Say what you want about how baby talk makes adults sound silly, it really does serve a purpose: Research has shown that it helps infants absorb words more easily than when you speak to them in a normal tone.
And according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a similar dynamic may be at play with puppies — the other group that causes us to lapse into that same cutesy voice. In the first part of the experiment, volunteers viewed images of puppies and adult dogs and recorded a piece of prewritten dialogue as though they were speaking directly to the dogs in the photos: “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!” (For a control, the study authors also had them say the same few lines in their normal voices.) In the second part, the researchers played the recordings back to dogs — some borrowed from shelters and some belonging to humans who volunteered their pets — and observed how they reacted to the sound of the human voice.
The takeaways here are twofold: First, when the researchers ran an acoustical analysis on their voice recordings, they discovered that the participants altered their pitch depending on the age of the dog in question. In general, people spoke more slowly and at a higher pitch when addressing a dog than when they were speaking in their regular tone of voice, but the difference was especially pronounced when they were talking to puppies. Which, incidentally, works out well for the puppies: While older dogs were equally responsive to high-pitched and normal recordings, younger ones seemed particularly engaged when they were listening to people baby-talk in their direction.
The study authors didn’t have a firm conclusion as to why that was the case, but they speculated that, as with humans, talking high and slow “may be efficient to promote word learning, an ability well demonstrated in dogs” — which, they argued, is the same reason why we do it in the first place: Our minds lump dogs together with babies as “nonverbal companions,” entities that only kinda sorta maybe understand what we’re saying.
But really, what your dog wants most — at any age — is for you to just be quiet.