Have you seen the new GEICO commercial that features McGruff the Crime Dog? You know, the dog that was the star of the 1980s Public Service Announcements for the National Crime Prevention Council. In case you haven’t, let me describe it for you. McGruff walks into the police department and says, “Sarge, I just got a tip that’ll crack this case wide open. It turns out the prints at the crime scene—”. The sergeant cuts him off, “Did McGruffy wuffy get a tippy wippy?” “I’m serious. We’ve got to move fast before—”, continues McGruff as he is again interrupted. “Who’s a good boy?”, the cop asks. “Argh, I’m just going to go.” McGruff says in a huff as another officer walks into the scene and, in the same baby-talk tone, says, “You wanna go outside.” McGruff leaves in a huff, obviously annoyed by the tone. While this ad is quite inspired and will undoubtedly put a smile on your face, research shows that dogs actually do appreciate when you talk to them like a baby. As a matter of fact, it is a good way to build a relationship with your canine companion.
Researchers from the University of York, led by Dr. Katie Slocombe of the psychology department, wanted to know how beneficial it was to speak to your pet dog using baby talk. They put thirty-seven adult dogs in rooms, along with people speaking to them. The dogs were presented with one person speaking to them in baby talk, which they referred to as dog-directed speech – “a special speech register, known as infant-directed speech, is thought to aid language acquisition and improve the way a human baby bonds with an adult. This form of speech is known to share some similarities with the way in which humans talk to their pet dogs.” The phrases they used were those that a dog might commonly hear, such as “you’re a good dog” and “let’s go for a walk.” Another person in the room would speak to the dog with regular “adult” speech containing non dog-related phrases, for example, “I had a coffee today” or “I read a good book.” Meanwhile, the researchers measured to whom the dogs paid attention and with whom they interacted. Then the speakers were instructed to mix dog directed speech with non-dog phrases, and adult-directed speech with dog phrases. They were hoping to discover whether it was the tone or the words that attracted the dogs.
As expected, the dogs preferred to interact with the speakers who used dog phrases spoken in dog directed “baby” speech, as opposed to the speakers who used non dog phrases spoken in adult directed “normal” speech. What was interesting, though, was the fact that the dogs had no preference between the speakers when they mixed up the speech and content – that is, when they used dog phrases in adult speak or non dog phrases in baby speak. Their findings, published in Animal Cognition, are a useful tool for training. After all, the first step in training is getting your dog’s attention. Using baby talk increases the odds that your dog will listen to what you have to say, just make sure you use phrases that your dog understands. The more time you spend with your dog, bonding with him and speaking to him, the more words he will understand. Personally, I like some lively apres-dinner discussions with a nice chardonnay. I have noticed, however, that not everyone understands the importance of human-dog conversations. Some people can be outright judgmental. Thus, it might be a good idea to check your surroundings prior to chatting up Sir Muffinhead in a public setting. After all, you don’t want to end up in a straight jacket holding a pencil between your toes, while attempting to draw stick figures on the padded walls.