Sirius, my Newfoundland, likes to play a game with me. The moment I sit down to eat, she asks me to take her outside to potty. When she has my attention, she will run back over to the table instead of to the back door and puts her chin up next to my plate.
Sirius doesn’t try to take the food, even though she could! She seems to find it hilarious that she could be naughty but isn’t and then, of course, enjoys a romp outside with me as my dinner gets cold. Is this game, and some of her other antics, a joke she is playing on me?
Some great minds, including 19th-century naturalist Charles Darwin, have pondered the question: Do our dogs share our sense of humor? We might not be the only ones laughing!
The Best Medicine?
It doesn’t take much time around dogs to realize the positive impact canine companions have on our moods and world outlook. Most dogs seem to radiate joy, and their companionship makes us less lonely.
The big bonus is that having a dog around results in a lot of unexpected hilarity. Dogs have huge personalities, and the more bonded you and your dog are, the more likely it is that you’ll both develop more than a few inside “jokes”—behaviors your dog does that you think are hilarious.
If you have ever watched dogs playing, you might think they make a noise that sounds like they are laughing, and you’d be right! During play, dogs produce a vocalization that can be understood as laughter. This laughing vocalization is characterized as exhaling in a breathy way through their mouth. It is believed that this is part of how dogs communicate with each other about play, such as when they are trying to initiate a chase game or are play-bowing.
And some research suggests that, as in humans, laughter is good for dogs. A classic study led by researcher Patricia Simonet explored the impact the sound of dogs laughing had on other dogs at a Spokane shelter. The researchers played a recording of dog-play vocalizations that featured the laughing sound. The scientists concluded that dog laughter could reduce stress behaviors among shelter dogs and even support dogs in initiating pro-social behaviors.
Do You Get It?
Dogs are quick learners, and it doesn’t take long for even young puppies to figure out that if they can make us laugh, we are more likely to continue to engage with them. Our laughter reinforces the kinds of jokes that dogs naturally play, and they are more likely to tell those jokes more often.
But does the ability to laugh mean that they also have a sense of humor? Many dog owners describe how their dogs play tricks or display behavior that could be considered a joke.
In “The Descent of Man,” published in 1871, Darwin described behavior that might be seen as a gag. “Dogs show what may be fairly called a sense of humor, as distinct from mere play.” A dog with a stick, he said, might “carry it away for a short distance; and then squatting down with it on the ground close before him, will wait until his master comes quite close to take it away. The dog will then seize it and rush away in triumph, repeating the same maneuver and evidently enjoying the practical joke.”
Has your dog ever done something that made you laugh and then started doing it again and again? For most dogs who are bonded with their owners, the person laughing is positive and reinforcing. With dogs, behavior that is reinforced is more likely to be repeated. Most of our dogs strive to get attention, engagement, and even laughter from us.
Although there have been no official studies about what breeds of dogs are the funniest, there are breed considerations to keep in mind. Each dog is an individual, but each breed also has fundamental traits described in their breed standard regarding the ideal temperament.
The Coton de Tulear’s standard, for example, describes the breed as “naturally clownish.” That’s ideal if you’re looking for a playful companion, perhaps a bit frustrating if you’re a serious soul.
Whether you want a well-behaved family companion or if you plan to pursue sports with your dog, it’s important to bring elements of play and humor into your training sessions.
Unfortunately, we can’t ask dogs exactly what they find funny, and we can’t say for sure that they’re really playing jokes on us! But we do know one thing: The more time you spend with your dog, the greater the chances that you’ll find something to laugh about together.