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Animal Behavior

Why We Should Talk to Our Dogs More

... and why many would rather confide in dogs than people.

Key points

  • Dogs respond to the emotional tone of our voices, research shows.
  • If you look into your dog's eyes while talking to them, you'll both experience a surge of calming oxytocin.
  • Some people are more comfortable confiding in their dogs about difficult emotions than in partners or friends.
Matheus Bertelli/Used with permission
Girl talking to dog.
Source: Matheus Bertelli/Used with permission

When you catch yourself talking to your dog, you might briefly feel self-conscious or silly, especially if other people are around. But there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable because you’re actually doing something beneficial for you and your pup.

For one thing, dogs respond to the emotional tone of our voices. When people talk to their dogs, it’s often in a higher-than-usual pitch or sing-songy voice that’s reminiscent of “baby talk.” Researchers call this “dog-directed” speech, and it turns out that dogs actually prefer it: Not only does this style of speech capture their attention more than normal speech does, but dogs also choose to spend more time near someone who is using dog-directed speech, according to a study in Animal Cognition.

Even if they don’t understand exactly what’s being said, dogs process human speech in the same regions of the brain that people use. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) procedures, research led by Attila Andics found that when awake dogs and humans listened to human voices, the same areas of their brains lit up—and they were both sensitive to emotional tones in the vocalizations.

Another study, in the journal NeuroImage, found, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, that the reward center of a dog’s brain is more responsive to their owner’s voice than to another person’s voice. And it turns out that dogs who are especially attached to their humans have a greater neural response to their voices even when they can’t see them. Simply hearing your voice makes your dog happy.

Another perk: If you’re speaking to your dog face to face and looking into their eyes, you’re both likely to experience a surge of oxytocin (often called the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone”), which will make both of you feel good. This mutual gazing behavior creates a “self-perpetuating oxytocin-mediated positive loop” that deepens the connection between people and their pups, according to research in the journal Science.

Interestingly, research published in the journal Anthrozoös found that some people are more comfortable confiding in their dogs about unpleasant emotions, such as depression, jealousy, anxiety, apathy, and fear, than they are with their partners or friends who are confidants. The researchers speculate that this may be because dogs are nonjudgmental listeners.

After all, your dog isn’t going to interrupt or disagree with you, betray your confidence, or swing into fix-it mode by giving suggestions about what you should say or do. Instead, they’re going to sit or lie there, serving as good listeners and sounding boards.

There’s value in that because you’ll get your feelings off your chest and feel “heard.” Plus, putting your feelings into words can help you process your feelings within this safe space. The very act of naming or labeling your feelings helps lessen their intensity and helps you feel less emotionally reactive, according to research conducted by Matthew Lieberman and colleagues.

Granted, this is true whether you talk to another person or your dog. The difference is this: Because your dog won’t engage in a conversation about how you’re feeling, you’ll be less likely to ruminate about it and more likely to move on. Your dog can help in this respect by distracting you or encouraging you to play or snuggle with them, which will improve your mood and strengthen the bond between you.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

More from Jen Golbeck, Ph.D. and Stacey Colino, M.S.
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