An August 2023 study published in Nature’s Communications Biology found that dogs respond differently to baby talk, but why? Is there any benefit to using “baby voice” when you talk to your dog? Do dogs respond differently to male and female voices? Let's find out.
Researchers in Budapest, Hungary, set out to learn more about how dogs respond to the acoustic properties of speech. The dogs were observed using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), an MRI that measures brain activity based on changes in blood flow.
Don’t worry; the dogs were awake and unrestrained! To stay still during scanning, the dogs completed specialized training with positive reinforcement, and they could leave the scanner at any time.
Pups and prosody
You may have noticed that people often use speech with high, variable pitches and short utterances with pets, just like with human infants. (Cut to me using baby voice with my nearly ten-year-old dog.)
It all comes down to prosody, or speech patterns, rhythms, and intonations. This is how we modify words and sentences to convey different meanings, like adding inflections or emphasizing individual syllables — think poetry and music. There are different types of prosody, but for our purposes, think of it as “expressiveness.”
In this study, researchers focused on the patterns for infant-directed speech, dog-directed speech, and adult-directed speech.
What is infant-directed speech?
More commonly referred to as “baby talk,” infant-directed speech is characterized by:
Wider pitch range and variability
This can promote bonding, significantly influencing the baby’s cognitive, social, and language development, and is very different from how we typically speak to other adults.
Women tend to articulate vowels more than men when speaking to infants. They also use a wider range of pitches than men, depending on who they’re addressing, whether adults, dogs, or babies. This leads us to our next question:
Do dogs respond to baby talk?
Put simply, researchers found that dogs respond more to exaggerated dog- and infant-directed speech than they do to adult-directed speech. This is consistent with past studies that took a different approach to the question.
A more science-y explanation
The fMRI helped identify differences in the dogs’ brain responses to various speech stimuli. Dogs have a primary auditory region in their brains and a non-primary auditory region, the left caudal/rostral Sylvian gyrus.
In the scans, large areas represented responses to “all” sounds, whereas these smaller regions were activated differently for infant, dog, and adult speech, as heard from women and men.
Different regions of voice processing light up for different reasons. Dogs tend to respond more to other dogs’ voices and their owner’s voice than other familiar humans. This appears in the secondary processing region.
Alternatively, emotional expressiveness appears nearer to the primary auditory processing region.
Whether or not a sound is relevant to the dog and its ability to get their attention is likely most important, as reflected in the temporal cortex.
Babies, dogs, and baby dogs
Unsurprisingly, infants are even harder to study via fMRI. Research is limited, but we know infant-directed speech results in a stronger neural activation in babies than adult-directed speech.
So, infants and dogs are similar in how they respond to speech directed at them. And because there’s not a lot of difference in how dogs respond to dog- and infant-directed speech, we can conclude that this is due to the acoustic characteristics of each.
In short, dogs do respond to baby talk.
In one womb, out the other
Infants respond strongly to female voices, which could be explained by long evolutionary developments or as a result of hearing their mothers while in utero. It may also be because women’s voices happen to closely resemble the vocal expressiveness that best gets a baby’s attention.
There's more to the story, though. Your dog, as much as they may be your baby, did not spend nine months in a human mother's womb (probably).
Even so, we can rule out dogs having similar pre-birth experiences because their ear canals are closed until three weeks of age.
Do other animals respond to baby talk?
We don’t have much to go on here, but we have reason to believe that human-raised wolves respond well to low-pitched intonations.
Perhaps this is yet another development in the long history of human-dog companionship. After all, dogs co-evolved with humans, adopting social, emotional, and even dietary changes over at least 10,000 years of domestication. (Some trace this number as far back as 33,000 years!)
Don’t dogs respond to high-pitched sounds in general?
They do! From whistles to squeaking toys, it’s true that the mere high pitch of non-speech sounds can get a dog’s attention. Still, you’ll recall that the relevance of speech and the dog’s relation to the speaker influence their response and through different brain parts — in ways we can distinguish from “all sounds.”
So, while this study didn’t set out to answer that question, and there’s room to explore with a broader set of dog breeds and other factors, we can pretty confidently agree with the study’s findings: it does seem that dogs have a greater sensitivity to what we call “baby talk.”
Your influence? Sounds good.
Our parenting styles affect how our pets learn, which may explain their response to your voice.
Your dog will learn to associate high-pitched speech with praise, getting a treat, and affection. These situations may also strongly correlate with relaxed body language and putting off overall positive vibes.
They'll rarely hear your high-pitched baby voice when they do something naughty or if you’re stressed out. You may even avoid using baby talk in front of other humans so that embarrassing baby talk only comes out when your dog is getting undivided attention.
And if you’re like me, you’ll try to use that baby voice to trick your dog into bathtime, but they’ll quickly catch on to your schemes.
Dylan M. Austin is Independence Pet Group’s highly caffeinated Sr. Content Writer, supporting Figo Pet Insurance, Pets Plus Us, and PetPartners. Based in Seattle, he's usually hanging out with his Chihuahua Terrier mix, Will, and tending to an increasingly excessive houseplant collection.