Study: Owners Use Dogs To Aid With Family Discourse

Picture the scene: You’re back home for the holidays at your parents’ house. Your mother has made your all-time favorite meal. As you and your Greyhound look longingly at the food on the counter, your mother says, pretending to be the dog, “That looks delicious to me too.”

Does this ring a bell? If you’ve ever spoken to someone as your dog, or directed your comments to the dog instead of the person, a study published in the British scholarly journal, Research on Language and Social Interaction, offers evidence that other people do, too, and for reasons that extend beyond the entertainment value of it.

The author of the study is Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who studies the way everyday language impacts our relationships. She set out to explore how family members use their dogs as a way to communicate with each other.

Tannen had six families record their interactions for one week. She discovered that they would often speak as, about, or to their dog as a strategy to resolve a conflict, teach their children, buffer criticism, shift to a humorous tone, and deliver compliments.

Speaking as the dog is referred to as “ventriloquizing,” and in one example Tannen uses a couple, Clara and Neil, with a small child, Jason, and their two Pugs, Tater and Rickie.

Clara is frustrated that her son hasn’t picked up his toys. Rather than scold him, she speaks both as the dogs and to them:

Clara: [to dogs] "What do you have? Come again? Tater and Rickie! You guys, say [as dogs, extra high pitch] 'We’re naughty, but we’re not as naughty as Jason, he’s naughtiest. We just know it!'”

And in an interaction with Neil, she speaks to the dogs, as a way to gently chastise her husband, using humor. Clara notices that Neil has left the front door open:

Clara: "Did you leave the door open for any reason? [using babytalk] Rickie, he’s helpin' burglars come in, and you have to defend us, Rick.”

Although the sample size in Tannen's study was relatively small, using dogs as a resource for communication seems to be a frequently used method within families.

As is often the case with academic research, understanding some of the wording in the study’s conclusion requires a scholar-to-dog owner translator. But one conclusion Tannen reaches is something all dog lovers will relate to: Dog owners often spoke as, or to, their pets as a way to establish their dog’s identity and inclusion as cherished members of the family.