Put a baby in front of us, and we’ll coo and tickle until we’re blue in the face. Put a puppy or kitten in front of us — and we’ll do the exact same. While the impulse to baby-talk an infant can be explained biologically (it increases attachment and attention) it’s less clear why we feel the same impulse towards our furry-legged companions.
A study conducted by Tobey Ben-Aderet set out to see exactly why we use infant-directed speech when communicating with our furry canines. To do so, Ben-Aderet recorded people using high-pitched, sing-songy voices, and then played those recordings to both adult canines and puppies. The “pet-directed” speech, he found, had an immediate and positive impact on the puppies, but less so on the adults (he theorized that adult dogs would respond more positively to hearing their owner’s voice over a stranger’s voice). As for why we baby-talk our furry pets, Ben-Aderet concluded the following: when speaking to a dog, we modify our speech as if we’re talking to babies or linguistic- foreigners — that is, we believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that the ‘listener’ has not fully mastered the language and thus would respond more positively to simplified speech.
The takeaway? It’s somewhat hardwired for us to talk to our pets the way we do, the same way we talk to our babies. Even if we aren’t baby-talking, chatting to our pets in general is a normal and natural human response to being in the company of others, human or not. We are “natural anthropomorphizers,” says anthrozoologist Hal Herzog, “meaning we naturally tend to [ascribe] all kinds of thoughts and meanings to other things in our lives.” So, is it harmful? Definitely not. Beneficial? Maybe – especially if it means we have someone to talk to, even if they’re only there to listen.