We all know that dog owners have to have a sense of humor. From coming home to find all your best cushions destroyed to waking up at 3am because your best friend wants to warn you about a passing car, your dog can certainly test your patience. But does your dog find things funny? Obviously, your dog isn’t about to break out into a full stand-up routine, so how do you test for a sense of humor? Do dogs feel amusement or, even, laugh?
What Is a Sense of Humor?
Understanding humor, laughter, amusement, or any emotional responses for that matter, has been perplexing scientists for hundreds of years. Even today, with our advanced understanding of genetics and new technology like MRI machines, there is a lot of disagreement about the human sense of humor, let alone the humor of our canine friends.
The root of the issue is a nature vs nurture debate. Is our sense of humor innate and genetically inherited, or is it cultural and inherited from our surroundings and environment? This deeply affects how we measure and understand a ‘sense of humor’. A physiological component would be visible in gene analysis or brain scans, while many studies have shown emotional responses to vary widely from culture to culture.
That being said, there is some agreement about the social nature of humor and laughter. It is known that we laugh a lot more when we are with people we would like to impress, for example. This means that laughter is not, in itself, the sign of a sense of humor. This begs the question, do dogs laugh? And, if they do, why do they laugh?
Do Dogs Laugh?
Many scientists have found that dogs do, indeed, laugh. Loose, curled lips and heavy panting is often seen as the dog equivalent of laughter. For many, this is evidence that dogs have a sense of humor. Seeing a dog laugh when they are enjoying themselves, such as when you are playing fetch or having a cuddle, is often put forward as evidence that dogs have a sense of humor.
However, one commentator from the New York Times suggests that the existence of laughter is not necessarily evidence of the existence of a sense of humor. While accepting that the jury is still out on whether cats have a sense of humor, James Gorman argues that it is likely that dogs laugh due to their genetic history as pack animals with strict hierarchies. Just as humans have been proven to laugh to show deference and in attempts to please their bosses, potential partners, or anyone else they want to impress, dogs are thought to laugh with their humans because they view them as their leaders. It is a sign of respect, as well as enjoyment, but not necessarily a ‘sense of humor’.
On the other hand, however, it is worth noting that a lot of the research that provides the foundation for wolf, and therefore dog, hierarchies is now discredited. Specifically, this is the idea that wolves have alpha, beta and omega roles. Although, it is worth noting that, even without specific structural hierarchies, humans still laugh to denote deference and social connection. Ultimately, the question of doggie laughter is still very much in need of further research.
Dog Humor and Playfulness
As we’ve already suggested, however, a sense of humor is not always related to laughter. Just as laughter does not necessarily indicate a sense of humor, a lack of laughter does not necessarily indicate a lack of a sense of humor. You can appreciate a joke or play around without having a giggle, after all!
Many dog owners argue that their pet’s playfulness is evidence of their good sense of humor. However, studying playfulness is also tricky because enjoying toys and playing catch or tug-of-war is not synonymous with a sense of humor. Thankfully, studies on the subject go back hundreds of years, and they carefully explore the concept of a ‘sense of humor’ as distinct from ‘playfulness’.
Charles Darwin himself did studies that demonstrated that dogs are not only playful, but enjoy playing tricks on their owners. This could indicate a sense of humor. In his 1872 work ‘The Descent of Man’, Darwin described a common ‘practical joke’ played by dogs. It is a game that most dogs like to play – a stick or favorite toy may be offered to you, perhaps as part of a game of fetch, but then snatched away as soon as you reach for it. It is thought that dogs do this simply because they find it hilarious to trick you, which would be a simple and obvious indicator that they do have a sense of humor.
Related Post: Automatic Fetch Machines
Do Dogs Find Things Funny?
Ultimately, if you are wondering ‘do dogs have a sense of humor?’, it is quite likely that dogs can be described as ‘having a sense of humor’. As well as laughing and being playful, they demonstrate an understanding and enjoyment of practical jokes, and there is nothing more closely linked to having a sense of humor than enjoying jokes!
It is also worth exploring the differences between breeds. Although plenty of individual dogs have their own distinct personalities, the history of each breed can also indicate the extent of their humor, and the type of humor they are likely to display. Some dogs laugh more than others, some dogs love to play, and other dogs have a more intelligent sense of humor that involves trickery and jokes.
Studies suggest that there is a correlation between playfulness and having a good sense of humor in dogs. Specifically, dogs that frequently want to play hide-and-seek or fetch are most likely to exhibit a sense of humor. If you want to adopt a dog that has a great sense of humor, the study found that the dogs with the best sense of humor were:
The dogs with the worst sense of humor were generally found to be working dogs, who have, historically, had their playfulness bred out of them in favor of hard-work and a serious demeanor. These dogs included:
- Basset Hounds
- Debbie Swanson, Do animals laugh?, HowStuffWorks
- Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM, Do Dogs Recognize Facial Expressions?, VCA Hospitals