How to Talk to Your Dog
I talk to my dog incessantly. I work from home, so we hang out all the time. I’ll send an email, fire off a tweet, write two words of a story — you know, work — and then casually glance over at her and inquire, “Do you love your mom?!” When I can’t stop obsessing over something dumb, I tell her, Dr. Dog, all about it. Then, like any sane person would, I ventriloquize her in the high-pitched, yet world-weary tone I’ve assigned to her. (“Hmmm… okay” would probably be her tagline).
I’m far from the only human to talk to their pet; this tendency to anthropomorphize our animal companions (and even inanimate objects we hold dear, like our phones, cars, or guitars) is practically second nature. The habit combats loneliness, and some research suggests it’s even a sign of intelligence. (Great news!) But the fact remains that this conversation is somewhat one-sided.
Or is it? Most dog owners will swear that their dogs do respond to what they say. Although the average dog can understand roughly 165 words, it’s likely that body language and tone matter much more than the actual content of what you’re saying. They’re really reading your emotional affect, according to the psychologist Stanley Coren, the author of How to Speak Dog. Talking to your dog can be therapeutic, so it really is good for you. Here’s how to do it.
Use a positive emotional tone
As a dog owner, the way you communicate with your pup sets the tone for how they navigate the world. Your response to a given situation signals to them whether to feel safe or threatened. Baby talk, or what’s known as “motherese” — a high-pitched, sing-songy, lilting way of speaking — puts your dog at ease, while a deeper, commanding voice is more likely to intimidate them.
Coren gives the example of an oscillating fan with a plastic bag caught in it, a foreign object that your dog could perceive as a threat. “The owner can do one of two things: act like it’s scary and say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s ugly!’ Or, ‘Wow, isn’t that interesting, that’s really nice.’ One’s positive, one’s negative.” It’s your voice, more than the situation, that determines what happens next: “If it’s negative, the dog stays away from it; if it’s positive, they’ll approach it with the owner.”