It’s time for ‘walkies’ as we answer the age-old mystery of why can’t dogs laugh…or can they? If you’re more of a cat person, you might want to turn back now. This is one article firmly dedicated to our canine companions and the science behind their smiles.
There’s a reason dogs are called man’s best friends, and if you own one, you’ll undoubtedly have seen them smile, sneeze, yawn, and maybe even cry. However, there’s still the question of whether dogs can laugh. Has Muttley been lying to us all these years?
Laughter — It’s Good For The Soul
Firstly, let’s look at the school of thought that dogs can laugh. While it isn’t quite the side-splitting chortles you might see from humans while watching Tina Fey, Steeve Coogan, or Julia Davis, some experts think dogs express happiness in a certain way.
In the book “Man Meets Dog”, Nobel Prize-winning ethnologist Konrad Lorenz claims dogs can laugh. Lorenz says, “The tilted angle of the mouth which stretches almost from ear to ear give a still stronger impression of laughing. This ‘laughing’ is most often seen in dogs playing with an adored master and which become so excited that they soon start panting”.
This behaviour is actually echoed in the research of Patricia Simonet. In 2005, the animal behaviourist published a paper on dog vocalisations and explained, “During play encounters dogs vocalize using at least four distinct patterns; barks, growls, whines…and a pronounced breathy forced exhalation (dog-laugh).”
While the stereotypical human laugh is vocalised as a “haha” (cue Nelson Muntz), the dog pant is more of a “hhuh-hhah”. Simonet took this one step further and played recordings of her ‘laughing’ dogs to 15 puppies. She noted that the puppies became visibly excitable at the sound of the happy dogs.
Taking this theory into her own home, Simonet tried it out on her dogs. She wrote, “I began to experiment, originally with my own dogs. My first attempts were not very successful, causing virtually no response or at best puzzled looks from my dogs. However I was eventually able to shape a set of sounds which reliably evoked interest on the part of my dogs.”
If you want to make your dog laugh, try it for yourself:
- Start by rounding your lips to make the first “hhuh” sound. The advice is to do this with no vocalisation. If you touch your throat, you shouldn’t be able to feel any vibrations.
- Open your mouth and make a smiling expression for the “hhah”. Once again, do it with your breath and no voice.
- Add these two sounds together with a continuous (and breathy) “hhuh-hhah-hhuh-hhah” to have your dog rolling around on the floor in hysterics.
For a while, people thought a dog’s version of smiling was wagging its tail, however, we now know dogs can smile in a much more human way. When a dog is relaxed or content, they’ll pull their mouth wide and let their tongue lap over their front teeth. This has been characterised as a “dog smile”.
Even cuter than this, dog smiles are often in response to a human smile. This phenomenon is called laughter contagion and is seen in humans every day. It’s a much easier way to tell if a dog is happy than the standard tail-wag. In fact, dogs wagging their tails doesn’t just mean they’re happy. Pooches use their tails for a variety of ways to communicate — ranging from happiness to anger.
Don’t be too disheartened if you can’t make your dog laugh or smile, and it’s important to remember, no two dogs are the same. Dr. Marc Bekoff explored dog laughter in the book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Here, he explained, “Dogs are as individual as humans. I’ve lived with enough dogs to know that even litter mates have individual personalities.”
Does this mean your dog might find your latest witty one-liner as funny as the neighbour’s prized pet? Bekoff added, “This is important to remember when making any assertions about dogs in general. Some people have said things like ‘dogs don’t like to be hugged.’
Bekoff concluded, “Some dogs don’t like it and some dogs do. And we should just pay attention to what an individual dog’s needs are.” Basically, if your dog isn’t laughing at your jokes, you don’t have to start working on new material.
You And Me Baby Ain’t Nothing But Mammals
Ironically, it was Charles Darwin who first posed the idea that humans aren’t the only animals that can laugh. In the 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin said chimpanzees expressed a form of laughing. Jane Goodall also backed this up and said she’s witnessed similar behaviour in chimps.
Humans, dogs, chimps, what other animals can laugh? Well, the list apparently extends to the likes of dolphins, crows, and elephants. Even rats are said to giggle when tickled — we just can’t hear it. It’s no surprise that our not-so-distant cousins, like gorillas, also express human-like laughing characteristics. However, learning that dogs can laugh and smile with the best of us is an arguably much cuter revelation.
Next time you’re bored at home with some dog-friendly wine, but reruns of Michael Mcintyre aren’t making you chortle, why not have a good chinwag with your dog and try to get a laugh out of them? Even if it’s a little ‘ruff’ being man’s best friend at times, at least we know our puppers have a sense a humour.
[Featured Image: 20th Century Fox/