Experts say you should talk to your dog like a baby. A surprising new study reveals the canine brain

Dogs are primed to respond to "the cute-sie voice," which has intriguing implications for their evolution

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 28, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Girl with dog spending time in the park enjoying good music (Getty Images/martin-dm)
Girl with dog spending time in the park enjoying good music (Getty Images/martin-dm)

An encounter with a puppy or a baby, it doesn't matter, can often draw out the same behavior, almost involuntarily. You know the one: A high pitched cooing, an exaggerated drawl, a tone beaming with unconditional love. Scientists call this "exaggerated prosody." To ordinary people, we know it as "the cute-sie voice."

New research reveals that dog brains are actually sensitive to this tone, which has surprising implications for how they evolved to be man's best friend.

To learn whether dogs prefer the cute-sie voice or not, researchers from the Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, the Research Centre for Natural Sciences and the Eötvös Loránd Research Network used a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) on trained, conscious family dogs. The pups then listened to recorded speech from 12 men and 12 women as articulated for adults, infants or dogs. The purpose was to monitor how the dogs' brains reacted to the different types of speech (e.g., man-to-adult, man-to-dog, woman-to-infant, etc.) and compare those reactions to data previously recorded among infants. Their results were published in the journal Communications Biology.

"Our study encourages dog owners to use this special speech style when talking to dogs."

The Hungarian scientists who performed this study are certainly familiar with the cute-sie voice: In a video accompanying their research, they show actress Jennifer Aniston from the TV show "Friends" using it on both a baby and a dog. This juxtaposition is far from coincidental, as the researchers' experiments revealed that dog brains respond in the same positive ways to exaggerated prosody as our very own infants.

"This study provides the first neural evidence for dogs' heightened responsiveness for speech with exaggerated prosody (specifically to dog- and infant-directed speech) as compared to adult-directed speech, especially when spoken by women," Dr. Anna Gábor, a study co-author and postdoctoral researcher at the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at Eötvös Loránd University's Department of Ethology, told Salon by email. "Previous research has shown that dogs exhibit a behavioral preference for dog-directed speech. However, it was previously unknown that their brains also react more to this speech style and that they show a preference for women's dog- and infant-directed speech specifically."

When asked if this means that people who use "cute-sie" language with their dogs should claim vindication, Gábor unequivocally said yes.

"Yes, our study encourages dog owners to use this special speech style when talking to dogs, as it is proven that the way we speak matters even at the brain level," Gábor told Salon.

Dogs also have a clear preference when it comes to the sex of the person using the "cute-sie" voice: Females received better responses than males in the study.

"Interestingly, the sensitivity of dog brains to dog- and infant-directed speech was driven by voice pitch and its variations," Gábor observed. "This suggests that the higher and more intensely modulated voice pitch often used by women may be more effective when communicating with dogs."

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"This suggests that the higher and more intensely modulated voice pitch often used by women may be more effective when communicating with dogs."

"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, explained in a statement.

Indeed, from the perspective of understanding canine evolution, the research raises many provocative questions that scientists are likely eager to tackle.

"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," Gábor wrote to Salon. "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."

While some of the scientific facts remain to be learned, anyone who has felt the overwhelming urge to gibber and squeal upon seeing an adorable dog now knows for sure what their hearts always told them: In some strange way, they are getting through to them by doing so. Dogs are mysterious and yet, at the same time, their inherent friendliness — and consequent compatibility with humans — gets repeated confirmed by our day-to-day experiences. Even the scientists noted this during their experiments.

"Our dogs underwent extensive training using social learning and positive reinforcement before becoming able to participate in fMRI studies," Gábor recalled. "As a result of this training, the dogs became highly motivated to be scanned and would even compete with each other to get into the scanner. On one occasion, as another dog exited the scanner, I called for a Hungarian Vizsla named Luna who had been waiting in the nearby room."

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Anyone who has dealt with an excited doggo can predict what happened next.

"Luna was so excited for her turn that she promptly stood up, vigorously wagged her tail and let out a joyful bark, clearly displaying her happiness," Gábor told Salon. "It was an incredibly endearing moment."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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