Funny Girls

What's so funny, Cali?
What’s so funny, Cali?

Cali’s sister Dora recently spent several days with us, and I enjoyed watching them play, wrestle, and hang out together. It is fun and interesting to see how they are similar and how they are different. One similarity is that they both have a silly side and a goofy sense of humor.

All the dogs I’ve known, with the possible exception of a German shepherd, have had some concept of humor. They play tricks on each other and on us — keep away, hide and seek. They act silly. Cali lies on her back and wriggles around the living room, bicycling her legs. This never fails to get a laugh (and usually a belly rub and a play session). She especially likes to do this when I am on the phone.

Jana used to have a “geflite fish” stuffed toy that said, “Oy, vey …” and burbled when she squeezed it. This also was always good for a laugh. She’d dig it out and “oy vey” it whenever she thought I needed to lighten up. Sometimes, she’d stand and do it over and over, just to keep me laughing. She always watched me very carefully as she did this, as if gauging my reaction.

They don’t only enjoy getting me to laugh; they seem to like it even better when I do something silly and they get to laugh at me!

Jana LaughingCali and Dora lucked out. I had lunch with some friends while Dora was here, and we talked about different stretches and exercises we do at home. Someone talked about how important it is to do the “plank” pose from yoga, so I decided to try it. Well, that was about the funniest thing that Dora had ever seen. Cali wanted to play too, so she lay down and squeezed her head under one of my arms. Then she flipped over and wriggled until she was, belly-up, between my arms. Dora was — I swear — laughing. Literally ROTFL. I’ve never actually seen anyone do that!

The next trick was even better. I have a foam roller, and I use it to stretch my back. Fair enough. Hilarious, said Dora. She buried her head in my shoulder, laughing. I am sure she was laughing. Cali got in the act too, and within seconds, I had a fuzzy golden head peering at me from either side. Two big black noses in my face. Two girls nosing my shoulders, neck, face. Nudging. Occasionally, one or both could stand it no longer and buried her head in my shoulder. Laughing. Silly humans!

All those studies about how humans benefit from living with dogs? If laughter is the best medicine, I think it goes both ways.

Do Dogs Have a Funny Bone?

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.

Jana enjoys a good joke!

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!