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There's no doubt that some animals can learn to understand some of what we say to them — look at Chaser the Border Collie, who's been scientifically shown to know 1,000 words.
But that's not what's going on when most of us talk to our pets. I chatter away in full sentences to my Pugs, despite the fact that they have both gone deaf. I also talked to the zoo animals I used to care for, greeting them in the morning and scolding them for not finishing their meals.
What is it that we get out of talking to our pets? And what do the animals gain from it? We spoke with a few experts on dogs and humans to get some insight.
Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog, does research into how dogs think, but she's also interested in how people talk to them. She collects these one-sided conversations — like the owner overheard saying to his dog, "Last pee for a while, buddy," before the recent snowstorm in New York — on her Twitter feed, with the hashtag #thingspplsaytotheirdogs.
Surely part of why we do this is that our dogs often react like they understand us, but most of our dogs are very different from Chaser or the service dogs who respond appropriately to many commands. "These dogs have experienced incredible numbers of repetitions of specific words by people speaking to them," Horowitz says. "That's not the way owners typically talk to their dogs."
Ask any dog trainer and she'll tell you that most of us, even when we think we've taught a command, haven't done a thorough enough job of repetition and training in different situations. But even if our dogs do come to recognize individual words, they don't understand the ever-changing nature of sentence structure.
"Even the most skilled police dog, who can do incredible things if you say, "Go find!" won't know how to respond if you say, suddenly, "Go circle!" she says.
So when Horowitz overheard a woman saying, "No, that isn't food. No, I mean, that isn't food for you," we can be sure her dog didn't get the difference between those two sentences. However, if she spoke in a stern voice, the dog probably got at least part of the intended message.
It seems obvious to most people that dogs pick up on the emotions conveyed in our tone of voice. But what we think is obvious doesn't always turn out to be true when scientists do the research. For instance, that guilty look doesn't mean what you think it does.
In the case of our tone of voice, though, the science backs us up. Emily Bray is a graduate student in animal learning at the University of Pennsylvania who's worked with Brian Hare of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University on how dogs of different temperaments respond to intonation cues. She says that many studies have shown that a dog's behavior is affected by whether a person speaks in a friendly tone or an intimidating one. For example, dogs may understand what a pointing gesture means, but their reactions change depending on how an experimenter speaks to them.
"If you use the informative voice when you point, they go and search where you're pointing," she says. "Whereas if you say something in the imperative voice, they're more likely to just sit down, even though it's the same gesture."
It's actually not at all surprising that dogs understand our tone of voice, because, in fact, there's nothing special about the way humans convey emotion — we do it the same way as our fellow mammals. "There's this idea called Morton's Law," Bray says. "Across mammals, high-pitched tones are generally associated with affiliative behavior, and low-pitched tones are associated with threatening behavior."
So when you talk that squeaky baby talk to your pet, he's probably getting exactly the affectionate message you're intending. Similarly, animals — including us — use short, repeated vocalizations when excited. In fact, one difference between experienced dog trainers and the rest of us is that trainers are better at using intonation to communicate effectively.
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