We talk to dogs. Happily so, for there is little bleaker than seeing a person texting while dragging a dog by her leash. It’s so natural to talk to dogs that for a long time I wasn’t even aware when I did it. But now I have evidence that I — that we all — talk to our dogs. For now, I’m listening.
Everywhere I go I encounter dogs: on the sidewalk, in the parks, in stores and airports, at readings, at my dog cognition lab. Most of the dogs are with people. Consequently, it is not long before I hear people talking to their dogs. Sure, much of what we say to dogs is request or command, exclamation points implied: Sit; Come; Go Get Your Ball. Once I began really listening, though, what surprised me was how much is not mere directive.
Heading down a city sidewalk one morning, when sleepy dogs and people stumble out for the dog’s morning micturition, I saw a woman with two small dogs, both in sweaters, one of whom had lifted a rear leg to aim directly onto a scaffolding pole. “You’re going first: excellente! Awesome job!” The dog’s owner crooned. I pulled an envelope out of my bag and scribbled down her words. Thus began my long foray into public eavesdropping on the dog-human dyad.
“You’re so cute and so smart. And worth money! I could marry you.”
(Woman to her Goldendoodle)
Once I began listening for other owners’ dog-directed soliloquies, I found that they were ubiquitous. I might catch two or three conversational snippets on a long block. It began to seem as though the act of a person walking by sometimes prompted an owner’s conversational opening to her dog — as though to emphasize how not-walking-slowly-down-the-sidewalk-alone she is. Not at all alone: She is with someone.
“What are you even doing? I don’t understand you.”
(Woman to her very sniffy black-and-white dog)
As every “Hi, puppy!” directed dogward demonstrates, the way we talk to dogs overlaps with the way we talk to babies. A Harris poll found that 95 percent of us consider dogs our family — so are we simply talking to them as if they were our children? “Pet-directed speech” certainly shares many features with baby talk: We raise the pitch of our voice and make it singsongy. We use a fairly limited vocabulary with infants, and with dogs too: more “You’ve been bad” than “What you did was morally indefensible.” Language is telegraphed: We tend to repeat words, slow our speech, shorten phrases and drop some categories of words, like articles.
On the other hand, when speaking to infants, we hyperarticulate our vowels: exaggeratedly saying Look at the doggeeeeee! to babies — but not nearly as much to dogs. It’s a subtle but key difference that marks a rift in our ways of thinking about kids and pups. Hyperarticulation is didactic, a way of teaching a growing human our language. When we are talking to dogs, we are under no illusion that they will grow up to use the language themselves.
“Don’t even think about it.”
(Woman to thoughtful dog)
Still, we do talk to dogs as though we are in a running conversation. After several hundred scribbled overhears, I began to notice some patterns in the dog-speech. One category of utterances is pure enthusiasm, the Cheering Squad:
“Good stop! I really liked that halt, guys.”
(Dog walker to her five charges, upon navigating a street corner)
“C’mon, you made it the whole way. One more step!”
(Man on top step to puppy sprawled on second-to-last step)
There’s the Mom Commentary on behavior. Eyes on the dog, she sees everything. And she’s gotta talk about it.
“You can sit all you want when we’re home.”
(Woman to dog not going anywhere)
“You’ve got a lot to learn! A lot to learn!”
(Woman to her dachshund puppy on the sidewalk)
“I know you got excited when you saw another puppy … but I need my arm to remain in the socket.”
(Woman to happily leash-tugging retriever)
“You’re embarrassing yourself!”
(Woman to shy dog avoiding a friendly dog’s advances)
Appropriately (for the category), most of these speakers are women. In fact, among my notebook scribblings, the speakers were women about six times as often as they were men. Women speak more often, more quickly and speak longer than men — on the sidewalk and in scientific studies of dog talkers. They repeat words more and are not shy about dropping in a term of endearment. This is not to say that men are immune from the Mom Commentary:
“Somebody has a bagel, and it’s not you. And it’s not gonna be you with that kind of behavior.”
(Man to rapacious hound)
“Be nice! When you get tired, you get nasty.”
(Man to rambunctiously playing dog)
In addition to the quotidian “Sit” and “Stay,” there are also the Perfectly Implausible Instructions:
“If you make it to the end of the fence, you get a biscuit. If you lie down, no biscuit.”
(Woman to corgi probably not going to make it to the end of the fence)
“You guys are going to have to get coordinated.”
(Woman to two dogs pulling in different directions)
“I see you doing weird stuff. Cut it out.”
(Woman to one of her four small dogs)
“Gimme paw! Gimme paw!”
(Elderly man to three-legged dog)
“Be part of the solution, buddy.”
(Woman to dog being part of the problem)
In the spirit of conversation that doesn’t need an answer, we turn question marks toward our pups, engaging them as if they might respond — and then waiting a beat to give them due time to so reply. This is the Rhetorical Realm:
“What, are you reinventing the poo?”
(Woman to long-pooing dog)
“Would you guys like to be in a book group?”
(Woman to eager dogs in dog park)
“Hi, honey, did you vote?”
(Woman to excited dog outside polling place)
Behind every unanswered question is the feeling that we might know the answer, given that we and our dogs live together, see each other naked, and obviously know everything about each other. Hence the reliable appearance of the We’ve Discussed This utterances (dog’s full family name implied):
“We’ve talked about this: No eating stuff you find on the street.”
(Man to foraging dog)
“We both know we have to go now.”
(Woman to dog gamboling in snow)
Most talk I hear is overheard, seemingly not intended for my ears. But when we talk to dogs around others, it serves as a social lubricant, a way to open up the possibility of talking to each other. “What’s your name?” said dog-ward is never answered — except, obligingly, by a dog’s owner. Dogs are not only reflections of us, they are social intermediaries for us. Any hesitation I may have about a person approaching me on the street is deflected by my dog Finnegan’s smiling, wag-filled greeting of them; in response, they talk not to me, but to the dog.
It’s not only strangers who can be looped in by dog-talk. We talk to our relatives — our human relatives — via our dogs as well. The linguist Deborah Tannen writes of a couple mid-argument: “The man suddenly turns to their pet dog and says in a high-pitched baby-talk register, ‘Mommy’s so mean tonight. You better sit over here and protect me.’” The dogs enable the speaking; they are not really the spoken-to.
Of course, through all our talking, dogs are more or less silent. Researchers keep looking for the language-using dog, though. Some dogs — like the Border collies Rico and Chaser, who died last week — have learned hundreds upon hundreds of words. Dogs in fMRI studies both distinguish familiar from nonsense words and process the emotional content of words. Nonetheless, dogs are not talking back. Some scholars think dog-human communication represents a “human fantasy” of how communication might go: all listening, no responding. “We like our pets’ silence,” the animal studies researcher Erica Fudge suggests, “because it allows us to write their words for them.” I do think this begins to explain our nonstop chatter with dogs. When we talk to dogs, it’s as if our private speech, the conversation we’re having in our heads, has slipped out.
The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, formulating his theories of child development, described a stage of children internalizing conversations with those around them — social speech — into a conversation in their own heads. He called it “inner speech” and thought it enabled children to use language to reflect on and consider their own behavior. We continue that monologue with ourselves as we age into adults. It’s not quite the way we’d talk to those around us, though, with its cropped syntax and a “note-form” shorthand that represents your familiarity with your own thoughts. But it’s just like what we’re saying to our dogs — as if they were in our heads.
Dogs are, of course, the preoccupation of our minds: we hope for them, care for them, love them. We narrate our thoughts while we watch them, and their thoughts while they accompany us.
One of the things we say to our dogs daily — two-thirds of us, according to one survey of North American pet owners — is I love you. Even the simple sound of our voice is an expression of that love, regardless of the content of the words we say. Through talking to them, we let them into an intimacy with us. They hear our secrets, our private thoughts.
So now you know: Pass me on the sidewalk, and I may be listening. Please don’t let it stop you from talking. It makes me feel optimistic about humans to hear us talk to other animals. We are at our best in those moments when we extend the circle we’ve drawn around ourselves to include them.