“The little dog laughed to see such sport” or so says the English nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle.” Which raises a question not frequently considered, do dogs laugh? Do they even have a sense of humor? Most dog owners would say they do. And even science is beginning to uncover evidence that our dogs know what “funny” is, at least to them. Apparently our dogs do laugh!
Author and psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz has been interested in how animals think. So much so that she has earned her doctorate degree (PhD) in cognitive science and has studied cognition in humans, rhinoceros, bonobos, and dogs. In her book Inside of a Dog, Horowitz describes how dogs laugh. She describes it as “a breathy exhalation that sounds like an excited burst of panting.”
If you’ve ever watched dogs playing with each other or been down on the floor playing with your dog, you’ve probably seen this behaviour yourself. The open mouth and cheeky look as they dart around making that sharp breathy sound.
One could argue that this is just an expression of joy. A kind of excited laughter that accompanies high spirits and play and isn’t really a “sense of humor.” Do dogs find things “funny”? Do they go out of their way to make us laugh? Do they do things to amuse themselves sometimes? There’s no way to know for sure since we can’t have a chat with them over coffee. But there are some behavioural considerations that dogs do, in fact, understand and use humor.
One of the things dog trainers have learned from Pavlov’s work in Classical Conditioning is that animals can be conditioned to have a positive or negative response to things in their environment. For example, leashes come to mean walks that the dog enjoys, and so leashes become “good things” and have a positive emotional connection for our dogs. The same is true of the sound of the dog’s dinner being made or the dog cookie jar being opened. These are all predictors of “good things” for the dog and therefore develop a positive emotional association in the mind of the dog.
Jean Donaldson refers to this as a Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) and uses it frequently in her training with shelter dogs and her own dogs. A CER can be used to make a dog more comfortable in potentially stressful situation or be used to desensitize a dog to a fearful object or place.
This video shows Donaldson actually teaching a CER to a dog in order to make it comfortable with a new time of head harness. In the end, the presence of the head harness becomes a conditioned reinforcer for this dog because it reliably predicts good things (in this case cheese).
So Classical Conditioning creates a conditioned reinforcer. It becomes something the dog will seek out as shown in Jean Donaldson’s video. Dogs are nothing if not experts at watching and remembering the actions of their owners. They know when it’s time for a walk and time for dinner. Just as these events can become conditioned emotional cues, so can our behaviour. And when we laugh, doesn’t that usually mean good things for our dogs? Especially when we are laughing with our dogs while we interact or play with them. They are so cute we often give them treats or affectionate fussing for their antics.
And this is where Skinner and Operant Conditioning come into the equation. By definition, Operant Conditioning occurs when the dog “operates” or acts on the environment and produces an observable consequence for their actions. If our laughter reliably predicts good things for our dogs, why wouldn’t they develop a repertoire of behaviours that can get us to laugh?
The process by which this develops in our dogs is wonderfully organic. It’s a process of discovery on both sides of the relationship. As we find our dog amusing, we begin to reward the dog along with our delight and laughter. The dog comes to see our good humour and laughter as a conditioned reinforcer, producing a positive conditioned emotional response. Our dogs may then begin to experiment with different behaviours to see if they can get us to laugh, to see if they can get that conditioned reinforcement of our laughter.
From our side, we are amazed and often delighted with the new and interesting things our dogs come up with. They make us laugh! And we deliver the reinforcement. The little dog laughs with us in those beautiful moments.
It’s not a process that any of us set out to control or establish with our dogs. It’s just a part of living together and enjoying our time together. Not all dogs have the same capacity for humour and not all home situations are particularly suited developing humour in a dog. Dogs who spend most of their days alone our out in the backyard away from people probably don’t have much opportunity to laugh with their humans. And those who work closely with their dogs in competitive dog sports or service environments likely have more stories to tell of how their dogs make them laugh.
Lightening the mood
Just as in human relationships, humour can also be used to break the tension of the moment. I’m sure those of us with dogs have many stories where we wanted to be angry with our dog for something and at that moment the dog did something to crack us up. Maybe it was a toy tossed crazily up in the air or a roll over onto their back and a wave of their paws. This is our dog knowing what can make us laugh and trying to lighten the moment. They are not necessarily trying to get out of anything but more trying to avoid an unpleasant situation.
We saw this most clearly when my wife began taking our Vince to agility classes many years ago. It was a long and tedious hour for a highly active dog like Vince. Most of his time was spent waiting for his few minutes on the equipment trying to learn what his mom expected of him. In those early days he wasn’t often right and we had not yet learned much of what we now know about training and behaviour.
In those moments when the pressure seemed to get to be too much for Vince, he would suddenly duck into a nearby tunnel even though my wife was clearly indicating that she wanted him to take the jump ahead. He would emerge from the tunnel mouth wide in a classic Belgian Shepherd smile, laughing as if to say, “Gotcha mom! Hahahaha!” And my wife would laugh and say “Oh Vinnie!” and the tension of the moment evaporated.
Over the years there are many stories of Vinnie and his “practical jokes” on my wife at many agility events. They always brought a laugh and they always lightened the mood for both Vince and my wife. It was an important part of their working relationship.
The best medicine
Human physicians will tell us that laughter is not just good for the soul but it’s good for the body too. Learning to laugh with our dogs can benefit not just their health but ours as well. Many dog owners know this too and have many wonderfully amusing moments with their dogs each week. But we have to be open to them.
It can be easy to mistake our dog’s attempts at humour as “disobedience” or inappropriate behaviour. We have to look at their actions through a broader lens sometimes to see that they are indeed trying to make us laugh. For many dogs, like our Vince, it makes them happy to see us laugh. And the science of Pavlov and Skinner can tell you why.
Who knows, you may have a cut-up canine comic lying at your feet right now! Just be sure to give them their due and laugh with them. Pay attention to their antics. And join in their silliness sometimes. It does us as much good to laugh as it does for them.
A dog owner walks into a bar…his dog looks up and thinks, “Wow, that looked like it hurt. He should have ducked.”
Laughing Dog – 2009 Mjk – from Flickr
Laughing Together – 2006 Max Talbot-Minkin (Maxintosh) – From Flickr
Laughing Vinnie – 2008 – Lory Hawrychuk