Thanks to a recent study on the urine flow of differently sized mammals (yes, small mammals “drip” and large mammals “jet”— more here), I came across a gem of a YouTube video where three out-of-frame tourists on safari observe and narrate the public urination of a rhino.

As the urination event unfolds, comments bounce from tourist to tourist:

Man #1: I got a good video of him having a pee.

Man #2: Ya look at that. Wow!

Woman: Wow!

Man #1: Wow! What a pee! That’s better than one of mine!

Woman: Don’t brag on camera.

Other comments directly address the rhino:

Woman: [after 60 seconds of continuous, firehose urination] Did you have a good pee, Mr. Rhino?

Dr. Doolittle popularized talking to animals, but he was merely mirroring something many of us already do—talk to animals, particularly those of the companion variety. And because it’s so commonplace, your ears probably don’t even perk up when you overhear someone speaking to a dog on the street. I talk to companion dogs that I’ve known for years, and ones I’ve just met (“Hello! Aren’t you fun! Yes? I scratch you where? Does that work? Look how happy you are!”). Most importantly, talking to the animals in your life won’t get you institutionalized (although I keep my talk to urban wildlife to a minimum—not sure of the socially acceptable status on that). While the range of things we might say to dogs is immeasurable, common themes pervade how we talk to our dogs.

Talking to, for and as dogs

You come home and there’s Floofers, bouncing around like, well, you’re not quite sure. “TOMMY!!” you scream up to your teenage son. “DID YOU WALK FLOOFERS??” If there’s no response, maybe you’ll turn to Floofers and say, “Did he walk you?” Do you have to go out?” at which point Floofers says nothing.

If instead Tommy screams back, “YEAH!” capturing a ‘you suck’ sentiment that only a teenager can, maybe you’ll turn to Floofers and say in a caring, cooing voice, “But he already took you out. What you want?” Again, Floofers says nothing.

It's common for us to talk to, for, or as our companion dogs. You might find yourself talking to the dog: You look like you have to go. Floofers, when did you last leave the house?” And there’s also talking for or on behalf of the dog: “Tommy! Floofers really has to go out!” In this case, you might accurately represent what Floofers wants, or your assumptions might be far off. Maybe Floofers just had a walk but he hasn't had much human interaction today because Tommy spent the entire day playing PlayStation4. Then there’s the case of talking as the dog (I would need many hands to count all the people I know who do this). So, in a high-pitched voice you could say, “I want to go out! Tommy! Please take me out! I love you so so much!” On some level, all these ways of speaking to, for or as a dog help include the dog as a member of the family.

Let’s get along (through the dog)

Deborah Tannen in the Linguistics Department at Georgetown University found there’s more to the story. Tannen analyzed audiotapes of two families’ conversations over the course of a week, and she found that the presence of a dog can help people communicate with other family members.

Say you and your partner are arguing. Tannen found you might incorporate your dog into your dialogue to communicate what you’re actually feeling, while also adding a humorous element to deflate tension. Tannen gives this example: During an 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.’” By talking through the dog, the man is able to say what he wants ("I think you’re being mean"), but in an indirect and potentially less threatening way (although, some might consider this passive-aggressive). Instead of escalating the situation, he is able to add levity by telling his woes to the dog, who obviously can't play therapist.

In another example, a mother addresses her son who is putting away his toys (finally!). When the son also puts away the dog’s toys, the mother pretends to speak for the dog, and in a funny dog voice sarcastically says that he “considers [the] family to be a slew of maids.” This creates a humorous tone but, as Tannen points out, the mother is also communicating that “family members should not expect other family members to pick up after them.” It is silly to think that a dog should see others as his servant (although that might appeal to Brian from Family Guy), and nor should children see others as their servants.

Ultimately, talking through dogs can have positive outcomes for our relationships with other people. Tannen suggests it can “create a more humorous mood, buffer criticism, deliver praise, teach values to a child, resolve potential conflict with a spouse, and create a family identity that includes the dogs as family members.”

Do you ever talk to, for or as your dog? Have you considered that talking through your dog could aid your communication with other people?


Image: We Need to Talk, Flickr Creative Commons


Tannen, D. 2004. Talking the Dog: Framing Pets as Interactional Resources in Family Discourse. Research on Language and Social Interaction 37, 399-420.