November 30, 2021

vgn365

We know our pets

The voices we make when we pretend our dogs can talk, from Werner Herzog to Cookie Monster

Most nights, as he is about to go to sleep, Josh Lieberthal gets into an argument with Werner Herzog. It is often over the pillow, which the 30-year-old communications specialist refuses to cede.

“You gave me part of your pillow,” the argument goes, in the German director’s soft, accented timbre. “The pillow is actually part mine, now.”

The voice belongs to Lieberthal’s dog, Rocky — a 5-year-old wheaten-poodle mix, or “whoodle” — with whom he and his fiancee share a bed. The argument is one that Lieberthal has with himself. Rocky’s voice, which Lieberthal provides, is that of the 78-year-old director of “Grizzly Man,” which just seems to suit his dog.

“When you look at him, he sometimes has this very concerned but wise look,” Lieberthal says. “And for some reason, we kind of attributed that to a concerned old German man.”

He doesn’t remember when, or how, or why he — er, his dog — adopted a thick German accent, dropping the “w” and “th” sounds, but he and his fiancee do it all the time now. Even, occasionally, when they’re not with their dog.

“I feel like a crazy person,” he says. “But at the same time, this is just so normal for us.”

Would he feel less crazy if he knew that Sierra Pratt, a 30-year-old Philadelphian, has a voice for Titus, her boxer mix, that sounds a little bit like Cookie Monster? That Ari Fertig, 35, and Liz Schwartz, 37, make their mixed-breed dog, Teddy, sound like a cartoon character crossed with a dumb jock? That Will Kavanagh, 31, regularly films videos of his pointer-hound mix, Louie, narrating his stream-of-consciousness, Muppet-voiced thoughts for his fiancee while she works a night shift in the ICU? Or that Lindsay Tarnowski, 37, of Denver, spent a portion of her recent visit to a brewery with her black Lab, Avery, welcoming other dogs to the brewery in Avery’s low, dopey voice?

“I remember thinking, like, ’Oh, I hope that people didn’t hear us,’ because that is just strange behavior,” Tarnowski says. “This could get weird.”

“I’m a pillow guy. You say it all the time, you love that I use the pillows.”

— Rocky the dog,as told by owner Josh Lieberthal

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Dog ownership is weird. You get to know another creature’s quirks and habits. You give them silly nicknames like “Boo Boo” or “Piggy.” You spend way too much time keeping tabs on their bathroom habits. You learn to understand each other, even though you don’t speak the same language.

But many dog owners are inclined to bridge that conversational gap, filling in the loaded silences with what they think — what they know — their dog is saying.

“They talk to you, and they don’t say the words, they say it in body language or behavior,” Schwartz says. “So you kind of want to fill in what they’re saying in words for other people.”

Which, in her dog Teddy’s case, is usually food. She and Fertig will be sitting there eating, with Teddy politely but intently looking at their plates, and one of them will say, in Teddy’s voice: “If you happen to drop something, that would be fine, that would be okay. I could pick it up if you need me to.” (“Especially cheese,” Schwartz notes.)

Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago, is an expert on anthropomorphism, or attributing humanlike characteristics to non-humans. He said people probably have been ascribing feelings and personalities to animals since before there were pets.

People anthropomorphize everything from dogs to inanimate objects to ill-defined concepts — doesn’t it feel like some rainstorms are particularly angry? We do it to make sense of the world around us, and to build connections to our environment, Epley says.

With dogs, funny voices are a way for families to deepen connections with each other and their pet.

“A pet is essentially a friend, and for couples, this is another friend that they have in common,” he says. “It seems like a communal story-building activity that the two folks can do together that bond them together a little more with this third friend.”

“Bacon? Hamburger? Lunch?? Lunch?? Bacon?”

— Titus the dog,as told by owner Sierra Pratt

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And that’s how some households get dogs with not only voices, but also elaborate plotlines and three-dimensional backstories. For example: Seamus, a 15-year-old Pekingese owned by 36-year-old San Diego small-business owner Molly Beane, is the dog version of “an older bitchy man who originally grew up in the South but eventually moved to Palm Springs.” Theo, a dachshund mix owned by 33-year-old Phoenix TV reporter Matt Galka, is an arrogant, preening celebrity DJ.

“One of the places where the pets can get boarded is called the Pet Club,” Galka says. “And we always say he DJs at the Pet Club.” He is very famous, Galka notes, like a canine David Guetta.

Sabrina Cartan, a 28-year-old digital strategist from Brooklyn, is constantly creating new identities for her Galgo (a greyhound-like Spanish breed), Oliver.

“He’s an alien from outer space one day. The next day, he is the president of the United States,” she says. “He was impeached several times.”

Sarah Coughlon, 27, has an ongoing bit with her girlfriend that their dog, Maurice, is the manager of the Bedford-Stuyvesant WeWork.

“He’s also sort of bumbling and, no offense to WeWork, but they seem sort of bumbling. And so I think he’s, like, kind of overwhelmed,” Coughlon says. “He’s really doing his best.”

Maurice, a mix that Coughlon describes as “a German shepherd that has beagle ears,” has a Midwestern accent for reasons that Coughlon cannot explain and always refers to his owners as “the ladies.” Coughlon, who works in advertising, doesn’t even go to a WeWork. Maybe this whole weird comedy bit comes from “trying to sort of make sense of the fact that our home that’s like our sanctuary suddenly becomes a workspace and that my girlfriend becomes my officemate. And that’s a weird relationship for us to have,” Coughlon says. “I think we are sort of trying to mediate that through the dog.”

“Mummerz, I’m hungry. Do you have any boo-berries?”

— Seamus the dog,as told by owner Molly Beane

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It’s a common relationship dynamic, says Alexandra Horowitz, head of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, who sees people using “the dog’s voice in order to talk to somebody else over some contentious issue, like talking to the dog and saying, ’Oh, you know, I guess Daddy is not going to do the dishes tonight,’ ” she says. “Most people aren’t even aware that they’re doing it but are kind of unconsciously bringing the dog into the human conversation.”

When Andrew Martin, 47, walks his basset hound, Maude, in Washington, he often finds himself speaking to other humans in her voice. (“A cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Shelby Foote, or maybe John Goodman,” he says.)

“When we see a stranger with another dog and you don’t know if the dogs are going to be friendly, I will do the Maude voice as a way of making an introduction to the dog and to the other dog walker and say, ’Hey Pa, I see that dog up there on the sidewalk, can I say hi, is that gonna be a friendly dog?’ ” Martin says.

Briana Moore, a 39-year-old photographer who lives in Maine, was on a road trip with her terrier mix, Quigley, when she met a woman who greeted the dog in baby talk. Moore voiced her terrier mix in response, saying in his vaguely European accent that he wished he could meet her dog. And to Moore’s surprise, the woman replied in her own (absent) dog’s voice.

“She was, like, responding to what would have happened if her dog was there,” Moore says. “But it was almost as if her dog was on the phone, like: ’Oh, yes, if I could see you in person right now, I would lick your face. I would chase you around.’ ”

Sometimes, a dog’s voice and persona can become something bigger. Thomas Shapiro, 29, started making videos on Instagram and TikTok for Tika, his Italian greyhound, who is — in both her owners’ perception and real life — a model and gay icon, with an extensive wardrobe.

“At first, it was the clothes wearing her,” Shapiro says. “Now, it’s her wearing the clothes.”

In Shapiro’s videos of Tika, he voices her thoughts about fashion and glamorous living in snooty French-accented English reminiscent of another Montreal-based icon, Celine Dion. (In her off-screen life, Tika responds only to commands in French and does not understand any English, Shapiro says.) The viral clips have earned them more than a million followers on both platforms, and custom outfits crafted by famous human designers, like Christian Siriano.

“There’s definitely something even more special about her just because I’ve given her such a voice,” he says. “I almost do believe that that’s what she thinks, and that’s what she sounds like, and that’s what she’s saying.”

Seamus basks in the sun.
Seamus basks in the sun. (Natalie Andrewson for The Washington Post)

Voice choice

Those are some reasons we make our dogs say the things they say. But why do we make them sound the way they sound? For some people and their pets, that might be a high-pitched baby voice, or a slow and low drawl, or a sassy, indignant vocal fry.

New York dog behaviorist Michele Wan says dogs sometimes seem to understand that a higher-pitched “baby talk” voice is directed to them and will be more responsive to it, even if they don’t understand the words. People who might not speak for their dogs often speak to them in this tone, which some owners adopt “almost subconsciously,” a team of Austrian researchers noted in a 2019 study.

“Often, dogs are kind of attracted to that, they perk up,” Wan says. “They may approach you when you do that.”

When we’re speaking both for and to our dogs, there are other reasons their voices might be high-pitched or cartoonish, or include poor syntax and grammar, or — to put it gently — a simple personality.

“It’s reflective of the size of the dog, relative to the people. I mean, even big dogs are smaller than people,” says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. “You feel protective toward him or her. And so it’s kind of childlike.”

“If you happen to drop something, that would be fine, that would be okay. I could pick it up if you need me to.”

— Teddy the dog,as told by owners Ari Fertig and Liz Schwartz

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Cartan’s dog, Oliver, for example, asks his “momther” and “famther” for food and likes getting some extra “attemtion.” Katie Bowles’s dog, Ava, a pit bull mix, calls her owner “Mutter” and calls Bowles’s boyfriend, Iesh, “Brudder,” speaking in the voice of Billy Bob Thornton’s character in the 1996 film “Sling Blade,” a voice that emerged to meet the dog’s level of stoic intensity.

“She’s quiet but also not smart,” Bowles says.

Our choice of voices also reflects our desires. Often, our dogs tell us what we want to hear — whether that’s jokes, “I love yous” or tough love.

Amanda Lombraña’s four mini schnauzers alternate between cheerleading and criticism. Basil, whom she describes as a “girly-girl” with a bit of a Paris Hilton voice, will compliment her on her outfits: “She’s like: ’Oh my God, yes. That is so perfect.’ ” But with Queenie, “You can just feel her judgment through her eyes,” Lombraña says. The dog will watch her work in their Austin home, and “she’ll just say, like: ’Oh, my gosh, is this the best you can do, really? We put you through university. … And look at you. You’re still Googling Excel formulas.’ ”

But when the dogs aren’t talking to her, the schnauzer quartet — there are also two boys, Orion and Iker — bicker and act out telenovela-like personal dramas in Spanish.

“I feel like I live in a house with four other people,” says Lombraña, 30.

A dog’s voice can become such a significant part of its personality that it outlives its subject. Beane, owner of Seamus, the Palm Springs Pekingese, also had a dog named Halford who died a few years ago. She’ll occasionally tap into Halford’s voice. It’s a way to comfort herself when she sees things that remind her of her old dog.

“I will talk to Seamus in the voice and say, like, ’Oh, your brother Halford loves and misses you,’ ” she says. She wonders whether people feel safer expressing complicated emotions through their dogs. “We rarely allow ourselves to be vulnerable and experience that sense of unconditional love with another person,” she says.

When Pratt converses with Titus, the boxer mix with the Cookie Monster voice, she usually keeps it light. They have a running gag where the extremely food-motivated dog conveys his indignation that humans get three meals a day, while he only gets two. Usually he’ll start by just coming up and saying, “LUNCH??”

“Titus! How did you hear about lunch? Who told you about lunch?” Pratt says to him. “Was it Archie next door, or was it the dogs at doggy day care?”

LUNCH??” Titus will reply, with more urgency.

It is Titus’s way of asking for a sandwich. It is Pratt’s way of telling her dog she loves him. And when she responds as Titus, she hears him saying it too, even if those aren’t the words she’s putting in his mouth.

“People spend so much time telling their dog that they’re the best. We want to hear back that our dog cares about us,” Pratt says. “We just want to be loved, too.”

About this story

Reporting by Maura Judkis and Elliot Smilowitz. Design and development by Jess Eng. Editing and production by Allie Caren, Matthew Callahan, Mary Hadar, Courtney Kan, Jordan Melendrez, Annaliese Nurnberg and Jordan Marie-Smith.