Squeaking for Joy
The title of this commentary serves as a good reminder that when speaking of behavior, context is everything. For example, this title on a commentary about mouse communication would carry a far different connotation than if it appeared on one about human-companion animal communication. If you think mice joyfully squeaking to other mice communicates the same message as humans joyfully squeaking to dogs and cats, this commentary is for you.
I’m a big fan of animal communication and probably took more joy than most in the discovery that several animal species laugh and that mice sing. These behaviors fascinate me because they provide evidence of emotion in animals (not that I needed it!) and also the context and manner in which these animal emotions usually are expressed.
But now let’s turn our attention to Homo sapiens squeaker. Members of this group emit a higher pitched call often with a sing-songy tempo that may be accompanied by a baby-talk libretto. These folks typically believe that speaking to animals in this manner communicates friendliness, love, and other positive human emotions. But while how we speak—or squeak—to our animals is immaterial if the animal is behaviorally and physically sound, it does deserve attention when the animal succumbs to negative stress-related behavioral and/or medical problems.
Years of observing how animals with medical or behavioral problems respond to people using this form of communication make it clear to me that, whoever that higher pitched presentation is designed to please, it probably wasn’t the animal. More often than not, it generates a stressed instead of calming animal response. Unfortunately for the animal though, if the stressed response consists of displays such as jumping up, leaning, shoving a ball at, or otherwise behaving in a manner to which people could attach a positive emotional spin, that reinforces this human form of communication. If not, if the animal cringes, pulls back, or even hints at aggression, the squeakers believe this signals something wrong with the animal.
Based on these and other observations, I developed my standard routine with aggressive dogs that involves allowing them to wander off-lead around the room doing what they wish while their owners and I discuss the history and nature of the animal’s problem. During this time, I also surreptitiously observe the animal’s response to the environment, those in it, and any novel stimuli. Because my goal is to make these consultations as stress-free for the animals and their owners as possible, I keep the pitch of of my voice low.
Initially when I made this connection, I used to demonstrate how something so seemingly unrelated as speaking to a dog in a higher pitch tone many associate with communicating comfort or love could have the opposite effect. The results of this were often quite dramatic. Soundly sleeping dogs would jerk into full alertness and rush towards me. Some would display the previously described stress/fear response and jump up on me, try to crawl in my lap and/or lick me vigorously. Others would rush over with less “positive” evidence of stress. Essentially what I’d done when I changed the tone of my voice was demote myself from someone they could trust to a (very) subordinate. While this resulted in an often dramatic visual aid for owners, I soon decided whatever this gained us humans wasn’t worth the loss of the animal’s trust in me and the security of my environment. Now when I discuss the subject, at most I whisper an example for those folks and then only when I’m sure their animals are otherwise engaged.
But even though I had more than enough personal evidence as well as positive feed-back from my clients to continue using this approach and recommending it to others, I’m sufficiently attuned to the workings of the scientific community to realize that many in it still give anything unproven in a controlled laboratory setting little credence. And while I have no intention of not using such a beneficial approach until such specific studies do occur, I was delighted to learn of a Duke University study that looked at speaker pitch vs. listener response.
Admittedly the test subjects in these experiments were college students rather than animals. But the results did support what I’d observed in companion animals. In the experiment, the researchers recorded males and females saying “I urge you to vote for me this November.” and raised or lowered the pitch. When they asked subjects to listen to these recordings and vote for the candidate of choice, more chose the male and female candidates with the lower voices.
Because other research had demonstrated that voice pitch also influenced listeners’ perception of speaker qualities such as competence, honesty, and strength, the Duke researchers decided to study whether this effect held true for both males and females. In their study, they also substituted trustworthiness for honesty. In this case, male and female subjects attributed all 3 qualities to those females with the lower pitched voices. But interestingly, the male subjects only associated the lower male voices with greater strength and competence, but not trustworthiness. Why the difference is up for debate, but possible parallels between human and animal male and female behaviors and their differences do come to mind here.
For me the findings offer further support for the validity of dumping the higher-pitched squeaky whiney voice when communicating with stressed animals or even stable animals in stressed environments. Whether we’re male or female, it makes sense to me that the best message we can communicate to animals at this time is that they can trust us to take care of ourselves, them, and whatever that environment might throw at either one of us.
So if you’re a squeaker or a whiner or otherwise find the pitch of your voice rising when you see an adorable young animal or your heart goes out to one who looks scared, stop and think about what you want to communicate. Do you want to increase this animal’s feelings of vulnerability? Or do you want to communicate that he or she can trust you? If it’s the latter, don’t squeak up. Instead, lower your voice.
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