Saying, “Boo!” to a Dog

I remember as a child, once walking by a tied-out dog. My mother was with me; we were at a campground, as I recall.   I knew enough not to approach a tied dog, even calm and lying down as this one was, without its owner present. However, I didn’t want to just ignore him!  It seemed rude as he was watching us in a hopeful way, so I said something like, “Hey there, Boo!” and the dog thumped his tail on the ground and grinned at me, dipping his ears and looking rather goofily happy. I remember asking my mother why dogs always seemed to like being called “Boo!”  Poor woman. I probably asked crazy things like this all the time. She did her best and came up with, ” Because it sounds friendly!”

Looking back, I think she was right.  But I don’t think it was the name, “Boo” alone that sounded friendly to the dog.  I’m sure (because I still call dogs, “Boo” today along with “Sweetness” and “Babycakes”) that I used a form of exaggerated speech that is closely related to baby-talk.  Nowadays I believe it’s called Motherese or Child-directed Speech.

It has been noted by many psychologists that humans (especially women) speak to animals (especially pet dogs) in almost exactly the same way as they would speak to a small child.  It seems to be an instinctive response.  I have never had children of my own, never baby-sat very small kids, and have few friends or relatives within easy-visiting distance who had infants for me to “practice” on.  Yet, I invariably use this special form of speech to all dogs, cats, and to a lesser extent the other domestic animals, and wild creatures I encounter around my home and on walks.

This isn’t necessarily the stereotypical baby-talk where words are distorted almost beyond recognition — “Did oo hurt ooself, widdle beebee, Did oo?”  But there are some shared characteristics:  higher pitch, drawn out sounds, musical cadence, rhythmical delivery and repetition.  Think about the last time you asked your dog if she wanted to go for a walk.  I bet it sounded something like this — “Puppy wanna go for a walk?  Wanna go?  Wanna walk?”  Probably the “walk” and “go” as final words were drawn-out and had an upward swooping pitch.  And I bet your dog got very excited and happy!

Well, you, say.  That’s because Fifi understands those words.  Yep!  I believe it!  And she understands the words precisely because the delivery was designed to help others acquire language!  Of course it was evolutionarily designed to teach our own children, but when we adopted dogs into the family, they benefited from the same speech patterns that were already well-honed by thousands, if not millions of years of mothers talking to their babies.

I’m not trying to be sexist here!  A lot of guys use this sort of language instinctively, too – especially if they’ve been the caretaker of small children.  However, men seem to have a harder time with applying it to a dog.  A lot of my clients just can’t wrap their minds around the need to talk baby-talk to their puppy (or adult dog!)  Even if you’re not trying to teach the dog word recognition, they just RESPOND better to that form of talking!  If you want to get a dog excited, encourage it to come to you, or make him work harder – speak in baby-talk.  Most dogs go all soft and goofy when they hear it and will do anything for you!

Some guys seem embarrassed by it all.  I point to K9 cops and Military Working Dog handlers.  Those big tough cops and soldiers invariably praise their dogs in this very same, high-pitched, sing-song, silly way.  And the big tough police and military dogs eat it up with a spoon!  They get the very same happy grin on their faces that the tied-out dog so long ago did for me.  It is plain that this silly-talk is the reward they work so very hard for and risk their lives to receive.  Saying “Boo!” to a dog is exactly what they want from us!

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