By Zhexi (Jersey) Lu

As many of us stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, our dogs are having the times of their lives, enjoying more time and attention from us. Animal shelters across the country are seeing a rise in adoptions and fosters as people search for a quarantine companion1. Whether it’s a new puppy or a senior mutt, many feel that dogs become an important part of their families. So, let’s talk about the ways we communicate with our dogs!


Ollie, photographed by Alex O’Donovan

Not only do many of us consider ourselves “pet parents”, but we also speak to our dogs as if we’re speaking to children. When we talk to babies, we often use infant-directed speech, which involves speaking with higher and more variable pitch, slower tempo, and clearer articulation of vowels. It turns out, we speak to dogs using “dog-directed speech”, which shares similar structural properties with infant-directed speech, including a high-pitch register and slower tempo. A 2017 study found that people used dog-directed speech with dogs of all ages and used a relatively higher pitch when communicating with puppies. When the voice recordings were played back to dogs of all ages, the puppies reacted more to dog-directed speech than human-directed speech. They reacted more quickly, looked more often at the loudspeaker playing the voice recordings, and approached it closer and for longer periods2. In another study, researchers found that adult dogs also paid more attention (measured by total gaze duration) to dog-directed speech than human-directed speech3. These findings suggest that the way we communicate with our dogs may be an evolutionary adaptation that strengthens the bonds between us.

Speech isn’t the only way that we communicate with our dogs. Many people pair gestures with verbal commands while training their dogs. A study done with water rescue dogs showed that dogs actually responded to gestures significantly better than words4. In fact, when the gestural command conflicted with the verbal command, dogs were more likely to execute the action indicated by the gesture. The only exception to this is when the verbal command “come” was paired with the gestural command “stay” while the owner was moving away from the dog. One way to explain this is that the dog’s desire to maintain proximity to the owner outweighed the preference for the gesture4. These findings suggest that gestures and body language play a major role in the way we communicate with our dogs.

In addition to speech and gestures, dogs are also able to extract and interpret emotional information from both humans and dogs. If you’ve had a dog that celebrates with your excitement or licks away your tears, this probably doesn’t surprise you. Being able to discriminate between positive and negative human emotions has enormous adaptive value. It is also likely a feature that is selected for during tens of thousands of years of domestication5.  Whether it’s a therapy dog, emotional support dog, or just a loyal family companion, our dogs will continue to stand by us and evolve with us.

No matter how we choose to communicate with our dogs, there’s no doubt that they’re an important part of our lives, especially during this quarantine. So, the next time someone judges us for screaming “WHO’S A GOOD BOY” in a high pitch, we can confidently say that we’re doing it because of science.



  1. Garcia, S. Foster Pets Are Finding Homes With Quarantined Americans. 2020 [cited 2020 May 23rd, 2020]; Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/us/coronavirus-foster-pets.html.
  2. Ben-Aderet, T., et al., Dog-directed speech: why do we use it and do dogs pay attention to it? Proc Biol Sci, 2017. 284(1846).
  3. Jeannin, S., et al., Pet-directed speech draws adult dogs’ attention more efficiently than Adult-directed speech. Sci Rep, 2017. 7(1): p. 4980.
  4. D’Aniello, B., et al., The importance of gestural communication: a study of human-dog communication using incongruent information. Anim Cogn, 2016. 19(6): p. 1231-1235.
  5. Albuquerque, N., et al., Dogs recognize dog and human emotions. Biol Lett, 2016. 12(1): p. 20150883.

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