Are you talking to me?

Cali, a golden retriever, looks quizzically at the camera.
Are you talking to me?

Be careful what you say; little ears are listening. And I don’t mean your children. It turns out that dogs do listen to what we say, as well as our tone of voice And they can often tell when we’re talking to them — or about something that matters to them.

A recent study, ‘Who’s a good boy?!’ Dogs prefer naturalistic dog‑directed speech looked at what they called “dog-directed speech,” which resembles baby talk. Their canine test subjects were all adult dog guests of a boarding kennel whose humans gave permission for their participation.

An earlier study on this topic had played recorded voices to dogs who were alone in a room. The dogs didn’t pay much attention. To me, that shows their intelligence. Would you respond to a disembodied voice telling you that you were a “good boy” or to “come here”? I hope not!

The newer study is far more respectful of canine intelligence. They also used recorded speech, but an actual human, matching the gender of the voice, was in the room.

Dogs were more likely to look at, approach, and interact with the researcher who was present when dog-directed speech — high-pitched dog talk — than boring human talk in a normal pitch and register.

The researchers also investigated whether dogs had a preference for content of speech.

The dogs showed the most interest in high-pitched, emotional speech directed to them, with relevant content. Dull content in an interesting tone was no more appealing to them than interesting content said in a dull tone.

What does this tell us? Perhaps that:

  • Dogs learn to associate meanings with particular words and phrases, as well as a particular tone of voice.
  • People tend to use a higher-pitched, more excited tone when talking to dogs, so dogs learn that what is said in these exaggerated tones is meaningful.
  • Dogs learn that people might say interesting things in a dull tone and then nothing fun for dogs happens, so they learn to ignore even favored words (“walk” or “cookie”) when it’s clear that the human isn’t addressing them.

Additional layers develop as a specific human builds a relationship with a specific dog.

I’ve always talked fairly conversationally to my dogs, and they do respond to relevant phrases and questions, even when I say them in a “normal” tone. I believe that dogs learn to read their humans and are able to tell — with a familiar person, though not necessarily with a researcher — which speech is relevant to them, regardless of tone.

I also think that it’s about time more people studied communication with dogs!

Miscommunication

IMG_3201I was on deadline, struggling to communicate with my computer (and failing). Cali came over and ever-so-gently nudged me. I patted her and kept working. Another nudge. I had taken a ball-throwing break about 10 minutes earlier, so I distractedly said, “Not now,” and kept working.

Another nudge. I ignored her. More nudges. Insistent, but so, so gentle and sweet. I patted her, told her to wait a few minutes, told her she was cute. Not what she wanted. This went on for about 10 minutes, I’m embarrassed to admit.

Finally, deciding that rebooting my computer was the only possible step, I shut everything down, rebooted, and got up. “OK, Cali, where’s your ball?” I asked, wandering outside.

Cali wasn’t outside. Neither was her ball. I called her again and looked around the yard. No Cali, no ball.

IMG_3195I went inside. Cali was standing in front of the sofa. She came to me, then walked back to the sofa. Touched it gently. Looked under it. Touched it. Looked at me.

The ball was under the sofa. Actually two balls were under the sofa, one dry, dusty, covered with tufts of fur. So much for my housekeeping skills. And my communication skills.

I gave her back the ball. She graciously allowed me to throw it twice, but really, all she wanted was her ball. And her long-lost second ball. She happily stretched out in the yard nuzzling the balls as I went back to work.

I’m constantly amazed by how clearly our dogs communicate — if we’re paying attention. And of course, this clear and detailed exchange reveals how little actual words matter to human-dog conversations. No, our communication does not suffer from dogs’ inability to speak human language. It suffers from our inability to pay attention, to focus on what they are saying — without words, but with eloquence nonetheless.