Tonality Could Help Dogs Understand Human Speech

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Tonality Could Help Dogs Understand Human Speech

Do our dogs really know what we are saying when we talk to them? It is an undeniable fact that when we approach a dog or a baby, our voices change instantly. We speak to both in a slow, high-pitched voice and excitement colors our word choice.

This change of tone is often involuntary and scientists are conducting tests to discover if this type of voice has any impact on a dog’s actions or ability to learn commands.

Nicolas Mathevon, a bioacoustician at the University of Lyon in Saint Étienne, France, and his colleagues conducted studies to see how older and younger dogs would respond to phrases spoken in different tones.

The team had 30 women read a script while looking at either a photo of a puppy, an older dog or a person. The women were told to read phrases often spoken to dogs such as “who’s a good boy?” and “come here sweetie pie!”.

The women adopted a in distinctive, sing-song tone when reading to dog photos, while maintaining a regular tone with photos. It was also noted that when reading the script to a photo of a young dog, the women’s voices were slightly higher pitched than when reading to a photo of an older dog and their tone was lowest when reading the script to a photo of a person.

The recordings were then played for dogs in a New York City animal shelter and studied their responses. Puppies seemed excited and curious about the voice, no matter the tone, while older dogs remained relatively indifferent.

Young dogs often crouched playfully upon hearing the voice, suggesting to Mathevon and his team that the high-pitched tone encouraged enthusiasm in the puppies. Meanwhile, the older dog’s lack of response suggests that these dogs would respond better to an actual person or a familiar voice.

These observations are helping scientists and animal behaviorists, like Monique Udell at Oregon State University in Corvallis, to understand the importance of human interaction for young dogs. “We care for and treat dogs of all ages like human infants,” she said, making it important to understand how our words impact their ability to function in human environments.

Further studies will be conducted to determine if speaking to puppies in this tone helps them learn commands more quickly and to understand how we can use our interactions with dogs of all ages to train and care for them.

Top photo by Can Mustafa Ozdemir CC BY 2.0

Lauren Leising is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.