Dogs smile and even laugh. Dog magazines understand this — both The Bark and Modern Dog regularly reprint readers’ photos of their “smiling” dogs. But do these facial and vocal expressions prove that dogs have a sense of humor? This is debatable. I would argue that some dogs do, thought this varies by breed. Golden retrievers and Labradors definitely enjoy a good laugh with their people or at their people’s expense.
On our recent drive from California to Montana, Jana (a golden retriever), Deni, and I stayed at a cute little guest cottage in Oregon. I took Jana for a walk around the grounds. The cottage had two small rooms, one with a patio. Jana and I left through the main door but returned to the cottage and entered through the “back” patio door. I told Jana to “find Deni.” She ran into the cottage, then into the main room, wagging and smiling, and greeted Deni. Deni reacted with happy surprise at Jana’s sudden appearance, since the main door, a few feet from where Deni sat, remained closed. Jana danced around wagging and smiling. Since she is a reserved dog, this was an unusual display.
Jana was pleased with herself. But more than that, she appeared to enjoy the joke she had played on Deni. Is this possible? Or am I reading too much into the situation, being too anthropomorphic?
What does it mean to have a sense of humor? Most living organisms — human, canine, or other — seek pleasure and avoid pain. This basic principle guides behavioral science (and dog training). Humor — laughing, and the ability to be amused — feels good and is good for us. So it is biologically sound to assume that other creatures have senses of humor. And, as creatures that have evolved, through heavy human influence, to be our best friends and companions, it would be far stranger if dogs did not understand and participate in intentionally humorous antics.
One of dogs’ most appealing characteristics is their love of play. But dog play often resembles dog aggression. Thus dogs have a detailed repertoire of communication that signals to other dogs — and dog-savvy humans — that “this is only play.” In other words, “I’m just kidding; I am not really going to bite/hunt/hurt you.” Another sign that dogs understand humor and “fun” is that they make up games. They also change the rules of games we, or other dogs, make up and self-handicap so that another, smaller, dog or puppy can also have fun.
Lots of dog owners and trainers have stories of things their dogs do that make them laugh. Like small children, some dogs intentionally repeat whatever action elicited the laughter. This is a sign that dogs get it. They understand that our laughter is a good thing. They love to play tricks on each other and on us. Does your dog have a sense of humor? Share your stories!