Mama Knows Best: Research Suggests Mother Dogs Are Tuned Into Their Babies

Jun 16, 2024

Puppy whines and whimpers are not just random sounds—they vary from litter to litter and even between individual puppies. A really interesting study by an international team of researchers, led by Mathilde Massenet at the University of Saint-Etienne in France, explored this unique canine communication using 220 Beagle puppies and their mothers.

The study showed that mother dogs are remarkably attuned to the sounds of their own puppies. By analyzing 4,400 whines from these puppies, the research team discovered that each litter had a specific and distinct acoustic identity, determined by the pitch and timbre of their puppies’ vocalizations. Smaller puppies typically produced higher-pitched whines (due to their shorter vocal cords and smaller voice boxes).

The Science Behind the Study

The research started by conducting a comprehensive acoustic analysis of the whines. They found that a litter of puppies had a certain average acoustic identity, and was distinct from other litters. This identity was shaped by the basic frequency of their sounds, which affects the pitch, and by the timbre, a blend of different tones that gives each sound its unique character.

The study also discovered that individual pups had their own sound signatures, and those were best predicted by the size of the puppy. Smaller puppies, with shorter vocal cords and smaller voice boxes, produced higher-pitched whines. This relationship between size and pitch is something we already intuitively recognize. It’s kind of like how we expect a mouse to have a high-pitched squeak and a lion to have a low roar.

To test the mothers’ responses, the researchers manipulated the recorded whines electronically and played them back using a wireless speaker placed behind a low wooden screen. The speaker was hidden in a fleece container to mimic the size and feel of a puppy. This setup allowed the mothers to hear the whines and react as if they were real.

Mothers’ ReactionsPhoto: A mother Golden Retriever lays with her puppy.

When various puppy whining sounds were played back, the mothers’ responses were meticulously recorded. The researchers found that mothers recognized the auditory characteristics of their own litter’s whining behavior, and responded with caregiving behaviors 93% of the time when the sounds matched those of their own puppies. However, they offered fewer caregiving responses when the sounds came from other litters or were electronically altered.

Interestingly, the mothers showed the highest level of care in response to high-pitched whines simulating smaller puppies from their own litter. From a biological standpoint, this makes sense, as smaller puppies are more fragile and require more care and feeding to survive.

The Impact of Puppy Vocalizations

The study’s key takeaway is that young puppies have their own distinguishing vocal patterns, which their mothers learn to recognize, and pretty quickly. These vocalizations are crucial in signaling their needs, and prompting their mothers to provide the necessary care. The effect of these sounds on dog mothers is really pretty significant. In about a fifth of the playback sessions, particularly those with their own puppies’ whines, the mothers carried the loudspeaker into the nest as if it were their actual puppy. This behavior shows that the auditory stimulus alone is powerful enough to trigger maternal instincts, even without visual or olfactory cues that would most likely trigger a motherly response.

This goes to show how important communication, even in puppy whines, between a mother dog and her baby is. It reminds us of us–the sweet attention and care that human mothers give their own human infants. 

So, even in the dog world, it’s clear: Mama knows (and can identify) best!

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