Women Use Singsong Smarts to Talk to Their Dogs

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As anyone who’s ever cajoled a stranger on the street to let you pet their dog would affirm, humans talk to animals with a particular patter. Psychologists call this “pet-directed speech,” or PDS, and a new paper in Animal Cognition reveals some of its distinctive patterns.

As noted by Barbara J. King at NPR, researchers invited 34 women to bring their dogs into the lab for what seems like the canine equivalent of the Strange Situation from attachment-theory research. They cycled through a quartet of situations: before separating, after reuniting, while playing, and when giving commands.

King scouts this as the most noteworthy finding:

“Before separation women used a low pitch, few modulations, high intensity variations and very few affective [that is, emotion-based] sentences. In contrast, the reunion interactions were characterized by a very high pitch, few imperatives and a high frequency of affectionate nicknames. During play, women used mainly questions and attention-getting devices. Finally when commanding, women mainly used imperatives as well as attention–getting devices.”

Therein lies the belly-rubbing rub: When owners were communicating with their pups, they changed their words and the singsongy action of their speech, called prosody, which itself is a big deal in IDS — infant-directed speech. These women are “communicating quite purposefully and strategically, using all the resources available to them as language users, with their nonhuman social partners,” King says.

The demographic breaks with PDS are also super fascinating: Co-author Sarah Jeannin of the University of Paris Nanterre explained that they didn’t use guys for their experiment since men are less likely to use PDS when addressing a pup. Even more intriguing, the researchers found that in this small study, child-free women talked to their dogs with higher voices than moms in the sample. No word yet if songbirds use PDS with dogs, too.

Women Use Singsong Smarts to Talk to Their Dogs