How to talk to your dog, according to science

Dogs are special. Anyone who has one knows. In addition, most owners have the feeling that their dog understands everything you say and any movement you make. Research carried out in the last two decades shows that dogs are capable of understanding human communication like no other species. Now, a new study confirms that, if you want to train a new puppy, to have the maximum chance that the animal follows what we are saying, you have to talk to it in a certain way.

When we speak to them we use what is called “language directed at dogs”

Research has already provided a good deal of evidence that the way we communicate with dogs is different from how we communicate with humans. When we speak to dogs we use what is called “dog-directed language”. This means that we change the structure of the sentences, shortening and simplifying them. We also usually speak in a higher tone of voice. We do the same when we are not sure that they are understanding us or when we speak to very young children.

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A new study has found that when we speak to a puppy, we use an even higher tone, and that this tactic does indeed help the animals pay more attention. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showed that when puppies are spoken using language directed at dogs, they react and attend to the human instructor better than when using normal language.

Analysis of the recordings showed that the volunteers changed the way they spoke to dogs of different ages

To verify this, the researchers used so-called experiments in playback. They recorded people saying the phrase “Hello! Hello Beautiful! who is a good boy? Come here! Very well! Good Guy! That’s it! Come here, darling! Good Guy!” repeatedly. Each time the person speaking was asked to look at photos of puppies, adult dogs, or old dogs, or not to look at any photos. Analysis of the recordings showed that the volunteers changed the way they spoke to dogs of different ages.

The researchers then played the recordings to various puppies and adult dogs and recorded their response behavior. They saw that the puppies reacted more intensely to the recordings made while the speakers looked at images of dogs (to the language directed at the dogs).

The study did not find the same effect when it came to adult dogs. But other studies that have recorded the reactions of dogs to the human voice in face-to-face interactions, including the one conducted in my own research, indicate that language directed at dogs can be useful in communicating with these animals, whatever their age.

Follow a pointing finger

It has also been shown that we can communicate with these animals through gestures. Since they are puppies, dogs react to human gestures, such as pointing, in a way that other species cannot. The test is very simple. Put two identical cups in front of your dog covering small portions of food, and make sure that the animal cannot see the food and does not have any information about the contents of the cups. Then point your finger at one of the two containers while making eye contact with your dog. It will follow your gesture to the cup you are pointing at and examine it in the hope of finding something underneath it.

The puppies reacted more intensely to the recordings made while the speakers looked at images of dogs.

The cause is that the dog understands that its action is an attempt to communicate. This is fascinating because it seems that even chimpanzees, who are our closest living relatives, do not understand the human attempt at communication in this situation. Neither are wolves – the closest living relatives to dogs – although they were raised in the same way as dogs in a human environment.

This has led us to think that, in reality, the skills and behavior of dogs in this field are adaptations to the human environment. In other words, living in close contact with humans for more than 30,000 years has led dogs to develop communication skills equal in practice to those of children.

However, there are significant differences between the way dogs understand our communication and how children understand it. According to the theory, unlike children, dogs understand the gesture of pointing as a kind of soft command that tells them where to go, rather than as a way of transmitting the information. On the other hand, when the gesture is made to a child, he thinks that we are informing him of something.

Dogs understand the gesture of pointing as a kind of gentle command that tells them where to go

This ability of dogs to recognize “spatial guidelines” could be the perfect adaptation to life with humans. For example, for thousands of years, these animals have been used as a kind of “social tool” to aid in herding and hunting. On these occasions, they had to be guided over great distances by gestural instructions. The latest research confirms the idea that dogs have not only developed the ability to recognize gestures, but also a special sensitivity to the human voice that helps them distinguish when they have to respond to what they are told.

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