Talk Nicely When Training Dogs. It Makes a Difference.
A trainer's voice tone affects a dog's emotions, learning, and performance.
Posted March 22, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Humans tend to use high-pitched, singsong tones when talking to babies and young children. Similar tones are often used when talking to dogs.
- Data from the Wolf Science Center was tested for the effects of a trainer's voice tones on the emotions and performance of both dogs and wolves.
- Speaking "nicely" to dogs produces more positive emotional responses and better, more reliable training performance outcomes.
For several years, I had a TV show called Good Dog! It was nationally broadcast in Canada on the Life Network and focused on dog training and solving common canine behavior problems. People who saw the show often asked why it was that when I spoke to the dogs, my voice seemed to rise an octave in pitch and became very singsong in tone. My answer always was that it seemed to me that the dogs paid more attention, were friendlier, and even learned faster in response to that tone. A recent research report from an investigative team headed by Melissa Gabriela Bravo Fonseca at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais in Brazil provides scientific support for that long-held belief.
Baby Talk for Dogs
We all know that our language changes under different circumstances. For example, there is formal language that we utilize when we are talking to authorities or to an audience. It is more reserved and ceremonial than the language we employ when talking with family and friends.
Similarly, there is a special kind of language that we use when we are talking to babies and very young children. When talking to babies, we use a higher-pitched, almost musical tone, with many changes in harmony and repetitions. Technically this form of verbal communication should be called "infant-directed speech"; however, researchers typically call this special language reserved for children "Motherese." The name comes from the fact that it is usually the language that mothers use when they are talking to their offspring, even though individuals who are not mothers tend to use the same tones when talking to very young children.
Back in the 1980s, psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Rebecca Treiman (then at the University of Pennsylvania) showed that the language we use when talking to dogs is very similar to Motherese. Technically it should be called "dog-directed speech"; instead, they playfully labeled this form of language "Doggerel." Over the years, additional research has shown that children and dogs pay more attention when spoken to in Motherese or Doggerel.
The data for this recent study was collected at the Wolf Science Center, which belongs to the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. This interesting research facility was founded in 2008 by behavioral scientists Friederike Range, Zsofia Viranyi, and Kurt Kotrschal. They were interested in finding out what happened during the process of domestication that changed wild wolves into our pet dogs and what possible roles humans played in the process.
The wolves kept at the center are mainly North American Gray Wolves. For comparison purposes, there is also a group of dogs kept at the facility. These are medium-sized mixed-breed dogs originally obtained from Hungarian animal shelters. All of the animals are hand-raised and are socialized with humans from the age of 10 days. For the first five months, they spend their time in close contact with their trainers. Afterward, they are housed in groups of two or three members of their own species.
The animals receive testing and training for an hour or so each day. The training is all reward-based and includes a number of basic commands (for example: sit, down, stand, stay, etc.), plus they are given experience with various pieces of scientific apparatus and learn to use a special computer touch screen. The training is the same for both wolves and dogs. The Wolf Science Center has served as a resource for a number of international collaborative behavioral studies.
The actual data used in the current investigation involved an analysis of videotapes of 270 training sessions at the Wolf Science Center. These sessions were conducted by five trainers and involved nine dogs and nine wolves.
The researchers' first task was to evaluate the trainer's vocalizations in this extensive set of training tapes. Specifically, they noted how trainers spoke during interactions with the dogs, the tone they used when they said the animal's name, whether there were laughs, etc. All utterances were scored except the commands used for training. This was because the pronunciation of commands was standardized and always spoken in a neutral tone of voice.
Each speech unit was classified as being "nice" (a happy tone, generally high-pitched like Motherese), "neutral" (similar to that used to tell the dog what to do during training, without intense variations in intonation), or a sharper, "reproachful" or "reproving" tone of voice (such as the tone one might use when disapproving of some inappropriate behavior). Also, the average pitch of the voice sounds (high versus low) was measured.
There was a massive amount of statistical analysis of the dogs' responses to the various tones of behavior in this report—too much to describe in detail here—however, the main findings are easily summarized.
The Emotional Response to Voice Tones
As might have been expected, talking nicely with a high-pitched voice caused positive emotional responses in both the dogs and the wolves. Their tails wagged more, they stayed closer to their trainer, and they seemed to be more at ease. Furthermore, the longer and more frequently that the trainer spoke in this "nice" tone, the happier the animals seemed to be.
The sharper, reproachful tone of voice caused the opposite effects in both dogs and wolves. Their tails wagged less, and they seemed to want to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the trainer. Again, the effects were greater when such reproving statements were longer and more frequently repeated.
The pitch of the voice used (high versus low) was itself capable of modifying behaviors, with higher-pitched utterances causing more positive emotional changes. Here there was a difference between the dogs and the wolves, with the dogs having larger behavioral changes in response to high-pitched, happy tones while the wolves responded to a greater degree to low-pitched, negative voice tones.
The Training Effect
Perhaps most importantly, these voice tones had an effect on the animals' training outcomes. The longer and more frequently the reproachful tone was used, the poorer the animals' performances were, as measured by the number of correct responses to commands. As compared to the nicer or neutral tones of voice, the lower-pitched, harsher tone of voice was associated with less predictable responses from the dogs in terms of their compliance with the instructions that the trainer was giving them.
The authors conclude with a suggestion: "These findings recommend the use of a friendly approach even if the animals present responses that are different from the ones requested. This strategy can potentially create a positive atmosphere, which may favor compliance with commands, and the development—by the animals—of a more positive emotional disposition."
It is nice to have some confirmation of my personal observations that if you want your dogs to not only feel better but also perform better in their training, you should talk sweetly to them. A little bit of high-pitched, singsong baby talk (or Doggerel) addressed to your dog can make a positive difference — and it even works for wolves.
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Fonseca, MGB, Hilário HO, Kotrschal K, Range F, Virányi Z, Duarte MHL, Pereira LCG, et al. (2023). The Power of Discourse: Associations between Trainers’ Speech and the Responses of Socialized Wolves and Dogs to Training. Animals. 13(6), 1071. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/ani13061071
Hirsh-Pasek R and Treiman R (1982). Doggerel: Motherese in a New Context.Journal of Child Language. 9(1), 229 - 237. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305000900003731
Ben-Aderet T, Gallego-Abenza M, Reb D, Mathevon N (2017). Dog-Directed Speech: Why Do We Use It and Do Dogs Pay Attention to It? Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 284, 20162429.