A lot of people talk to their dogs, but it can be a bit embarrassing. When I am explaining to my dog that the sooner she poops the sooner we can go in out of the rain, and a neighbor comes around the corner and catches me, I somehow feel like talking to a dog is not a grown-up thing to do.
But that’s hogwash. Here are five reasons we should not be ashamed of the occasional (or more than occasional) conversation with our dogs.
There is a Border Collie called Chaser who is said to know a thousand words. Before him there were other gifted word-learners like another collie called Rico, a mixed breed called Sofia, and a Yorkshire Terrier called Bailey. Some of these dogs also understand categories that multiple objects can belong to or words that describe qualities objects have, and even to respond correctly to simple two-word sentences.
It is not clear how much of the difference between these gifted dogs and the average pet is innate talent, as opposed to intensive training. Most of us know that there are at least a few words that must be S-P-E-L-L-E-D out to avoid excessive canine excitement. Words and phrases that are used often will slip into your dog’s lexicon over time and may be understood perfectly.
It has been suggested that the sounds humans make developed emotion content long before we developed words with meaning. That is to say, we came upon music long before language. And it is commonly said that as much of 80-percent of the meaning in our language comes from body language and tone of voice rather than the actual words we choose to say.
A research group in Budapest used MRI scanning to show that dogs’ brains respond to human voices in the same basic ways as humans. While humans have a smaller, more specialized part of the brain dealing with spoken language, humans and dogs both use the same area of the brain to process the emotional meaning of certain speech patterns. This high level of sensitivity to emotional content may be why several surveys have found that about half of dog owners feel their dogs are able to understand them psychically.
Talking with your dog can help get issues out in the open and help people work through difficult discussions. People have been found to use dogs to help avoid and resolve conflicts between each other by directing comments instead to a dog. Including a dog in the discussion can add humor and help build the family’s feeling of being a close group with a strong identity.
Talking to dogs can help children by providing them with a non-judgmental friend and companion. Talking to dogs helps elderly owners concentrate on the present and stay active. Animals have also been shown to have a special ability to elicit communication from some children with conditions on the autism spectrum that make them unwilling to interact with humans.
There was a time when people were told not to use “baby talk” because it would actually slow a baby’s development. But later research showed that the simplified and exaggerated nature of baby talk may be the very best way to introduce infants to language. And the babies, for their part, show a strong preference to listening to baby talk over other language styles.
Dog talk also has distinctive features, such as a high level of repetition. Things that people do widely and frequently often arise because they are purposeful and constructive, even when we do not consciously know what that purpose is.
While there are many ways to relate to your dog, and not everyone is a chatterbox, in general, people who talk to their dogs tend to show other signs of being closely bonded with their dog — although it should be mentioned that men talk to dogs less than women with a similar level of attachment.
Dogs make great efforts to understand human speech and gestures, so it is only fair that sometimes we make the effort to “speak dog.” For example, solicit play with sudden movement and the open-mouthed “play face.” Direct your dog’s attention to things by looking at them.
While there has been research into how dogs understand human speech, there is surprisingly little on the meaning of dog barks. Maybe it’s time to put more effort into understanding he dog’s end of the conversation.
Do you talk to your dogs? Tell us what you say and how they react in the comments!
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About the author: Emily Kane is a New Zealand-born animal behaviorist of the throw-back radical behaviorist type, albeit with a holistic-yuppie-feminist-slacker twist. She spent many years as an animal behavior researcher and is now more of an indoor paper-pushing researcher. Her early dog-related education came from Jess the Afghan Hound and Border Collies Bandit and Tam. It is now being continued by her own dogs and extended dog family and some cats (and her three aquatic snails Gala, Granny, and Pippin — they think of themselves as dog-esque).