We all speak to dogs, even if they’re not our own. A new study out of Hungary showed that our pooches respond to voices and speech designed for them and women do a much better job at this then men.
Hungarian researchers at the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, the Research Centre for Natural Sciences and the Eötvös Loránd Research Network revealed exciting similarities between infant and dog brains during the processing of speech with exaggerated prosody.
When communicating with individuals having limited linguistic competence (such as infants and dogs), to grab and maintain their attention, we speak with a specific speech-style characterized by exaggerated tone. Infant-directed speech is very important as it helps their healthy language development and comprehension skills. So, it’s no surprise that infant brains are tuned to this speech style, but are dog brains also sensitive to the way we speak to them?
To answer this question, Hungarian researchers measured dog brain activity via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In the MRI, trained, conscious family dogs listened to dog-, infant-, and adult-directed speech recorded from 12 women and 12 men in real-life interactions.
“Studying how dog brains process dog-directed speech is exciting, because it can help us understand how exaggerated prosody contributes to efficient speech processing in a nonhuman species skilled at relying on different speech cues (e.g. follow verbal commands),” Anna Gergely, co-first author of the study explains.
The study shows that dog auditory brain regions responded more to dog- and infant-directed than to adult-directed speech, which is the first neural evidence that dog brains are tuned to the speech directed specifically at them.
Interestingly, dog- and infant-directed speech sensitivity of dog brains was more pronounced when the speakers were women and was affected by voice pitch and its variation. These results suggest that the way we speak to our dogs does matter, and that their brain is specifically sensitive to the exaggerated prosody typical to the female voice.
Domestication and how we communicate
“What makes this result particularly interesting is that in dogs, as opposed to infants, this sensitivity cannot be explained by either ancient responsiveness to conspecific signals or by intrauterine exposure to women’s voice. Remarkably, the voice tone patterns characterizing women’s dog-directed speech are not typically used in dog-dog communication—our results may thus serve evidence for a neural preference that dogs developed during their domestication.”
“Dog brains’ increased sensitivity to dog-directed speech spoken by women specifically may be due to the fact that women more often speak to dogs with exaggerated prosody than men,” explains Anna Gábor, co-first author of the study.
19 adult family dogs from various breeds: 5 Golden Retrievers, 3 Border Collies, 3 Cocker spaniels, 1 Chinese Crested, 1 Cairn Terrier, 1 Labrador retriever, 4 mixed breeds.
11 Males and 8 female dogs were used and all were given specialized training to allow them to sit calm and still in the fMRI machine.
Dogs were presented with a set of auditory stimuli which included DDS(Dog directed speech), IDS(Infant directed speech), ADS(Adult directed speech) (24 for each condition) and with silence (Sil).
Each stimuli contained full sentences recorded from both female and male speakers unfamiliar to the dogs (N = 12–12) during natural positive interactions with their own babies (IDS) and family dogs (DDS) as well as an adult experimenter (ADS, see ref. From one speaker only one passage has been selected in ADS, DDS and IDS. The stimuli were carefully selected to have the same length on average of IDS, DDS and ADS conditions