“If you’re talking to a puppy, increase the pitch of your voice and slow the tempo,” says Mario Gallego-Abenza, a cognitive biologist and an author of a recent study analyzing canine response to human speech. People tend to use that high-register, baby-talk tone with all dogs, but it’s really only puppies under a year old that seem to like it. “With older dogs, just use your normal voice,” he says.
Dogs can learn words. One well-studied border collie named Rico knew 200 objects by name and, like a toddler, could infer the names of novel objects by excluding things with labels he already knew. Use facial expressions, gestures and possibly food treats while you talk. “Maintain eye contact,” Gallego-Abenza says. Research shows that even wolves are attuned to the attention of human faces and that dogs are particularly receptive to your gaze and pointing gestures. Scientists disagree about whether dogs are capable of full-blown empathy, but studies suggest canines feel at least a form of primitive empathy known as “emotional contagion.” In one study, dogs that heard recordings of infants crying experienced the same spike in cortisol levels and alertness as their human counterparts.
You might find yourself wondering: Is this dog even listening to me? Does it care? Look for the sorts of social cues you would seek in an attentive human listener. “Is the dog looking at you?” Gallego-Abenza says. “Is it getting closer?” You are a social animal; connection with other social animals can make you feel better about the world. Gallego-Abenza, no longer studying dogs, is now working on a doctorate at the University of Vienna focused on vocalizations between ravens. Last year, a couple contacted him, sure that they were able to converse with the birds in their garden. “Humans have this rich language, and we really want to communicate,” he says. “We think that every other animal is the same, but they’re not.” Go ahead and talk to dogs, but consider letting wild creatures alone to their own intraspecies squeaks, howls and whispers.