For an example that might be a bit more relatable, take Geoffrey Nevin-Giannini, a 31-year-old vocational trainer who lives in Seymour, Connecticut, and his dog, Maverick. When he and his girlfriend get home and the dog is super excited to see them, “I’ll greet her from Maverick’s perspective,” he told me. “Like, ‘Hey, Mommy!’ And she’ll reciprocate.”
“I find that my dog’s personality, or the voice I give my dog, is somewhat sarcastic or critical, particularly of me or my girlfriend,” Nevin-Giannini went on. “His most common phrase is ‘You son of a bitch,’” which might be muttered when, say, Nevin-Giannini throws out uneaten pizza without feeding any to Maverick.
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Research dollars are not pouring into this phenomenon, but Deborah Tannen, a linguist at Georgetown University, did a small study on what she calls “talking the dog” in 2004. She had family members record everything they said to one another for a week, and found that when they ventriloquated (a technical term) for their dogs, they seemed to do so for one or more of several reasons: “effecting a frame shift to a humorous key, buffering criticism, delivering praise, teaching values, resolving potential conflict, and creating a family identity that includes the dogs as family members.”
“People make use of whatever’s in the environment to communicate with each other,” Tannen told me. “The fascinating thing to me is how people find it easier to say things to each other if they don’t say it directly, but they say it in the voice of the dog. It introduces humor, and it becomes indirect. The dog’s criticizing you—not me.” (Or, perhaps, the stuffed animal is criticizing you.)
To Nevin-Giannini, speaking as the dog is a way of adding humor when he’s being self-critical. “We know our dog has separation anxiety, so when we leave we’ll be like, ‘Oh, these sons of bitches are leaving me!’” he said. “Not to over-psychoanalyze myself, but it’s probably my way of making light of the fact that I feel bad leaving him.”
Kathleen, looking back, thinks things got out of hand with the stuffed animals because she and her college boyfriend “were young, so our communication skills were crap and our self-understanding was crap.” It could be that it felt less daunting for her boyfriend to let out negative feelings using the buffer of a stuffed turtle.
But while speaking as a pet can be a way of introducing distance into communication, it can also, as Tannen noted, be a way of creating closeness in a family. Almost all American pet owners see their pets as family members, and giving a pet a voice is a way of making it seem like an active participant in the household. This helps explain why Tori Kerr, a 27-year-old radio producer who lives in Washington, D.C., came up with a voice for her dog, Nala. “She’s a bit of an anxious dog—very wiggly, very nervous—so her voice is this high-pitched, nervous, really shaky, not self-assured kind of voice,” she told me, in the voice. (For reference, she points to the character Missy from the animated Netflix show Big Mouth, whose voice indeed sounds similar, though Kerr insists that Nala’s voice predates the show.)