We all know dogs we describe as amusing, entertaining, or downright hilarious. Dogs can make us laugh. But do the dogs, themselves, have a sense of humor? Do they know they’re being funny? Do canines find things amusing? Do dogs laugh, and if so, what makes them laugh?
Is playfulness the same as a sense of humor in dogs?
Some theories suggest that, if playfulness defines a sense of humor, then dogs most certainly know what’s funny. Charles Darwin looked for similarities in emotions between animals and humans and observed what he considered a sense of humor that goes beyond just the game. In “The Descent of Man,” he wrote:
“Dogs show what may be fairly called a sense of humor, as distinct from mere play; if a bit of stick…be thrown to one, he will often 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.”
Many studies have shown that primates have a sense of humor. The most well-known is Koko the gorilla, who not only understood over 2000 words, but was also known for playing practical jokes and using wordplay. Scientists in the field of evolutionary biology posit that many if not most animals know what’s humorous. To paraphrase a saying: we may not be able to define a sense of humor, but we know it when we see it.
Is being funny or playful evolutionary in dogs?
It’s possible that this so-called sense of humor is really an evolutionary necessity that comes from wolves, the modern dog’s ancestor. Like primates, wolves live in hierarchal packs, where it’s essential to know one’s place in the pack and to avoid angering the alpha. James Gorman, a science writer at the New York Times, describes it like this: “when the big dog growls, the beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, lambda, mu, nu and omega dogs had better be able to laugh it off, so they can live to reproduce another day”
Do dogs act silly to make us humans laugh? Since animals must look after their own needs to survive, it’s possible silly or humorous behavior is a way to get attention. Consider positive reinforcement: your dog does something you want her to do, she gets rewarded. She rolls on the floor, with her tongue hanging out and a goofy expression on her face and you laugh and giver her affectionate rub. It’s possible she’s now learned that this behavior elicits a desirable response from you. Researchers at the Laboratory Animal Refinement & Enrichment Forum (LAREF) suggest that an animal may display what we think of as a sense of humor to get a response.
But according to an article in the Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly, “Even if animals… learn to respond to a certain situation in order to trigger a predictable… reaction in another partner, this does not exclude the possibility that the learned response is an expression of humor/amusement/fun.”
Playfulness depends on dog breed
If we equate playfulness with a sense of humor, we should also keep in mind that different breeds have different personalities and therefore, different degrees of playfulness. A team of animal behaviorists at University of California-Davis has even ranked breeds by how playful they are. They concluded that these are the most playful breeds:
- Irish Setter
- English Springer Spaniel
- Miniature Schnauzer
- Cairn Terrier
- Airedale Terrier
- Standard Poodle
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Golden Retriever
- Australian Shepherd
- Miniature Poodle
- German Shorthaired Pointer
Do dogs laugh?
Dogs have specific behaviors that indicate playfulness. For example, we’ve all seen the play bow. Dogs “bow,” by putting their rear ends in the air and their front legs on the ground, as a way of indicating they want to play and that anything that follows is all in fun. Even more interesting, research has determined that dogs actually laugh! The ethnologist Konrad Lorenz may have been the first to suggest this. In “Man Meets Dog,” he writes “…an invitation to play always follows; here the slightly opened jaws which reveal the tongue, and the tilted angle of the mouth which stretches almost from ear to ear give a still stronger impression of laughing… which become so excited that they soon start panting”.
When Lorenz observed the panting, he was really on to something. Patricia Simonet, an animal behaviorist at the Animal Behavior Center in Washington State, conducted studies on dog vocalizations. She and her team realized that dogs emit a very specific pant when they play. Using a spectrograph, they analyzed the sound, which to the human ear probably sounds a lot like any other panting. But they identified a specific “pronounced breathy forced exhalation,” which they named the dog-laugh. In studies, when other dogs heard the dog-laugh, they responded by play-bowing, wagging their tails, or play-chasing.
Perhaps none of this proves empirically that dogs have a sense of humor. For centuries, scientists haven’t even been able to agree on what a sense of humor is. But most dog lovers don’t need empirical evidence that dogs have a sense of humor. We see it in their goofy poses, their sly playfulness during a game of “keep-away,” and their innate ability to make us laugh. Darwin believed that the difference between human and animal intelligence is a matter of degree and, as Marc Beckoff, author of “The Emotional Lives of Animals,” wrote, “If we have a sense of humor, then nonhuman animals should have a sense of humor, too.”