page header image

Your Happy Pet: Do you talk to your dog?

Original Publication Date: January 27, 2014
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Pet lovers often hold conversations with their special furry friends. You have surely talked to your pet.

It is an interesting fact that the sweet-talk voice we reserve for our pets is high-pitched and exaggerated. It is often almost singsong in style.

Dog owners and parents are fluent in a type of language that psychologists call "motherese." The term seems a misnomer to me as all of my men friends use the same type of lilting voice to talk to their infants and dogs.

Motherese isn't the same as baby talk that might ask a child, "Prees take an itsy bitsy bitey of cakey for Mummsy?" On the contrary, motherese uses normal adult vocabulary and is grammatically correct. It does, however, use extreme intonation and exaggerated rhythm and sound. Throw in a pitch as much as two full octaves above normal adult speech, and you have motherese.

Experts suggest that the about 500 Hz pitch of motherese is the range that most infants best process sound. The lyrical lilt probably developed as it fit in well with the role of caregiver. Dr. Anne Fernald, director of Stanford University's Center for Infant Studies, said it has less to do with words and more to do with sound.

Fernald said maternal vocalizations induce emotion. It makes sense that pet caregivers have co-opted the same tonal quality to talk to their dogs.

The musical qualities of motherese appear to cross species boundaries; so whether talking to a small child or a dog, high tonal sounds are associated with conciliation or friendliness.

They are actually similar to the vocalizations of small, nonthreatening animals. On the other hand, hoarse, low sounds come across as a threat. This is the type of guttural expression an animal uses to seem larger than life when threatened.

Researchers Kathy Hirsh-Pasek of the University of Pennsylvania and Rebecca Treiman of Indiana University suggest that both infants and dogs are attentive listeners when we speak to them. Thus, both respond to the spoken word. Hirsh-Pasek and Treiman have dubbed the language and tone used to speak to dogs as "doggerel."

They suggest that we are less likely to introduce concepts to dogs. I wonder if they have ever watched a dog well trained in agility, obedience, herding, tracking or any of the other competitive activities.

The dog definitely seems to know the end game for the activity. I posit that they understand the concept of the activity. Many would explain it differently.

The researchers also doubt that dogs are asked questions. Perhaps I am a bit odd, but my dogs frequently hear questions like, "Are you ready for dinner?" They definitely respond. Basically, whether you call it motherese or doggerel, most, if not all, of us do talk to our pets. It engages us as nurturing caregivers and strengthens the bond we share. My dogs seem to love motherese.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at