Laughing with Your Dogs

Categories: Behavior & Training
A face built for stand-up comedy

Among the many burning questions we all ask ourselves often without getting firm answers are these:  Do dogs have a sense of humor?  Are they amused when funny things happen?  Are they actively trying to make us laugh when they perform their antics?  Or are their hijinks just snow jobs performed with ulterior motives to earn rewards?  Is it a matter of tricking for treats?

Scientists in their white coats have long argued about this in learned articles and earnest debates and say they have not yet found definitive answers.  Allow me to help them out:  Yes – I believe dogs do enjoy a good joke and a funny prank.  And it seems to me our canine friends like to be applauded when they trying to be funny. Dog owners have told me they have often seen this for themselves.  But does this add up to a sense of humor as we think of it?   And what exactly is a sense of humor anyway?

One problem is that it is hard to define what humor actually is.  Different giggles for different folks.   Perhaps the best answer can be borrowed from the opinion of a distinguished judge when asked to define pornography.  He said he could not provide a definition – but he knew pornography when he saw it.  It is the same with humor.   We know it when we see it.

There are many who will say it is nonsense to even talk about dogs and humor in the same sentence.  They will argue that what some see as humor is actually just a dog doing something that he knows will please the person that feeds him.  They say this behavior is in the domestic canine DNA, lodged there through evolution and natural selection down the millennia – a matter of winning rewards when the alpha guy is pleased.

What you are seeing, the naysayers will add, is an extension of a lab rat’s learning its way around a maze to get to a treat.  Go for the gold – or at least for the chicken treat at the end of the maze.  When a given number of rats learn how to do it, it slips into their genes.

But as Ira Gershwin wrote in his lyrics for Porgy and Bess – it ain’t necessarily so.  Maybe the dogs really enjoy a good joke and it has nothing at all to do with Mr Alpha.   How else do you explain the kind of behavior I have witnessed in my own dogs when I have been present playing my alpha role?

On one of our regular hikes, we arrive eventually at a large patch of lawn.  My little senior mixes Sally and Chloe love this place.  We don’t have a lawn at our townhouse so it has become a special playground for them.   As soon as we arrive at the lawn, they seem rejuvenated.  They charge around chasing each other and they throw themselves down to roll about.  Sometimes, when it’s a hot day, they will stretch out to cool off on the grass.

Chloe and Sally enjoying a romp and a roll in the grass

The other day, they were at opposite ends of the lawn – about 40 yards apart.  They stared at each other intently, then simultaneously hunched over into stalking postures and advanced at each other like pumas sneaking up on a tasty meal.   Eventually, when about three feet apart, the stalking was abandoned and they leapt at each other with fake growls and fierce barks.  They then chased each other in circles before collapsing together in what looked like canine hilarity.  They were not doing it for me – the guy who feeds them and takes them out on hikes.  They were doing it to amuse each other, for fun, for laughs.

I was not involved so it makes no sense to say their hijinks was part of a routine to amuse the old man who controls the big bag of Purina.  It’s a game they play quite often – sometimes at Stinson or Rodeo beaches in the waves at the water’s edge and sometimes on a much smaller scale when one of them is snoozing on my bed.  The other leaps onto the bed in full attack mode and in the ensuing brawl nobody gets hurt.  We call it stalk and charge.

A stranger who watched the stalking at Stinson one day called out that my dogs were about to get into a fight.  Nah, I assured him, it’s just their sense of humor.  I insist it is humor.

Pre-game Sandy

Allow me to offer another anecdote.  Years ago we had a sweet old Labrador named Sandy who came to us from a shelter in Washington DC.  Sandy’s favorite after-dinner game was to place a tennis ball on the carpet in front of the sofa where I was watching the TV evening news.  As my part of the game, I was required to lie on the carpet with the ball between us, our faces about 12 inches apart, and then we would stare at each other without blinking.

The game was to see who broke first and went for the ball – Sandy with her right paw or me with my right hand.  The winner was the first to hit the ball.  She won most of the time.  We played this game for years and she never tired of it, always after she had eaten her supper and had enjoyed her nightly walk.

Sandy keeping her eye on the prize

I really believe that Sandy brought the ball to my chair because she herself enjoyed her after-dinner game on the living room carpet.  It was for her own amusement and not because she was looking to please me.  She was ready to play with anyone who happened to be there.

I am pretty sure that most people who have dogs in their lives can tell similar stories about spontaneous outburst of fun.  My son has a friend with a small hairy rescue named Pauley and this little dog is particularly fond of my son.  When Pauley is brought to the house he dashes about in circles and leaps toward the living room couch – usually missing.  He leaps again – and misses again – and this is huge fun for everyone.  Including Pauley.  We are convinced that Pauley misses on purpose because he finds it hilarious.

Pauley, the Crown Prince of L.A.

Humor and fun in animals are serious topics for veterinary psychologists and behaviorists and they call for careful study and debate.  According to a report published by the American Kennel Club, researchers at the Laboratory Animal Refinement and Enrichment Forum have suggested that an animal may display what we interpret as a sense of humor to win a response from us humans – effectively supporting the theory that your pooch’s comedy shtick is work not play.  However, the report also cites an article in the Animal Welfare Institute Quarterly which states that the search for a response does not exclude the possibility that Fido is also expressing a sense of humor and fun.

So there we have it – the experts don’t really know.  And until someone masters the language of dogs so we can ask the four-legged stand-ups to explain themselves, we are going to be speculating and arguing about it.   This brings me back to my earlier point.  Many of us dog people witness a sense of humor in our pets every day.  We can’t really prove it – but we know it when we see it.

On a closing subject:  it is true that playfulness is not actually the same as a quiet sense of humor – even though they are obviously closely related.  Animal behaviorists at the University of California-Davis up the highway from our shelter carried out a study in which they ranked breeds by how playful they are.  These are the most playful breeds, they say:

Then again, not all dogs have a sense of humor. Dressing like Jean Paul Gaultier did not amuse Claude.
  • Irish Setter
  • English Springer Spaniel
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Cairn Terrier
  • Airedale Terrier
  • Standard Poodle
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Golden Retriever
  • Australian Shepherd
  • Miniature Poodle
  • German Shorthaired Pointer

Hey, I hear you protest, what about my Doxie who enjoys a pratfall more than anyone I have met? Or my laugh-a-minute Staffie who only stops clowning when he is eating or sleeping?  Or my Dalmation, or my Chihuahua?   Indeed – what about all of them? It is true that different breeds have different personalities, but we all know that all breeds – even Pekes – have their fair share of jokers.