Humor in Domestic Dogs

The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too.
Samuel Butler in note-books of “Higgledy-Piggledy,” 1912


There are millions of species of life that exist on earth today but of all these the dog is almost certainly the animal that is closest to our hearts. … we have allowed them to share our dens, our food, our companionship. Of all the hundred of millions of species that have ever existed on this earth, surely the dog has become the one we should understand the best (Fogle, 1990, p. vii).

Understanding the dog, however, is not an easy task, for they do not speak our language nor we, theirs. Animal behavior has been the subject of fascination since at least the time of Plato and Aristotle, and if human curiosity drives research, then animal behavior should be near the top of our list (Ibid). It is this researcher’s curiosity about animal behavior in general, and dog behavior in particular, that drives this current research, which focuses on humor in domestic dogs.1 “We tend to study animals for what they can teach us about ourselves or for facts that we can turn to our advantage. Most of us have little interest in the aspects of their lives that do not involve us. But dogs? Dogs do involve us (because) they have shared our lives for twenty thousand years” (Thomas, 1993, pp. 3-4).2

Humans tend to define their own lives in their own terms. That is, our species focuses on the world through human lenses with an anthropomorphic3 view which holds that “mental experiences are a unique attribute of a single species” – the human species (Griffin, 1981, p. 170). However, putting aside our anthropomorphic opinions may not be entirely possible in this discussion because, to some degree, anthropomorphic thinking “is factored into it. I think it has to be … or else I don’t see how we can distill these discrete emotions in a pet. I don’t think that we can really define them without … injecting a little bit into it” (Winters, 1997).4 It is suggested that projecting meaning from one species to another can be misleading, particularly when making comparisons between animal and man (Hinde, 1982, p. 201). Even so, our interactions with dogs can provide a rich source of insight into their behavior, and even ours, for there are over 50 million dogs in the United States (“Nature,” 3/2/97). But, do dogs have a sense of humor? Are they capable of “doing” humor and “being done” by it? In order to engage in humor, an organism must have a certain level of mental ability. Do dogs have mental experiences? Do they possess a consciousness? Do they feel and think? These questions are germane in our look at humor in dogs even though we are “well advised to study the behaviour, rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion.” However, this is not to say that “animal feelings do not exist and are not important” (Masson, 1995, p. 9).5

In a sociological exploration of humor and play in dogs, we do well to remember that all human experience is socially constructed. So, too, are dogs’ experiences in their association with humans. I further suggest that both humans and their dogs “are continually engaged in giving meaning to the world around them (for humor) occurs in a social environment in which participants act to make things humorous” (Mulkay, 1988, p. 106). While dogs do not laugh in the sense that we understand laughter, the humor that humans see in their interactions with their pets is socially mediated by both parties to form a collective moment, one which has meaning to each of them. This moment is created by, and facilitated through, certain behaviors and feelings shared by both dogs and their owners which, I suggest, involve mental experiences and awareness.

Inherent in seeking answers to the question of dog humor and awareness, we will examine comments from the field of ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior (Encarta95).6 While “direct parallels between animal and human behavior are rarely appropriate … animal data are sometimes useful not because animals are like man, but just because they are different” (Hinde, 1982, pp. 201, 202). In light of these differences, my focus will be on play in dogs, rather than directly on humor, for it is in the play of dogs that their owners perceive humor. Anecdotes from dog owners will demonstrate why many of them perceive humor in their animals. I should state that, as a dog owner, it is probable that my hypothesis that dogs “do” humor, and the argument I present to substantiate this view, is slanted - given that I also interpret my dog as “doing” humor in his play. However, a discussion on dog play, including verbal signals, facial expressions, and body movements, will serve to further illustrate how dogs “do” humor. I will end with a discussion on the possible consequences of humor in dogs and in their persons. It is hoped that the evidence presented will demonstrate that dogs, indeed, “do” humor and that play is the way they do it. If I fail to convince you of this, then at least – have fun!


Data was collected in a variety of ways. The literature pertaining to ethology and animal behavior was reviewed, and interviews with pet owners and a veterinarian were carried out. The veterinarian interview was taped, and a transcription of that discussion is located in Appendix A. Comments by pet owners will be found in Appendix B, and E-mails by ethologists and other researchers from Internet ethology list groups form Appendix C. Anecdotes referable to my current and previous dogs, Sandy and Charlie respectively, are not included in the Appendices.7 (Please note that the appendices are not available on this web page).


Humor is the key to the problem of the evolution of mind in animals, and perhaps to even larger questions as well (Fagen, 1997).

The Dog Mind and Mental Capacity

“Human capacities for cognitive functioning, and particularly for language, introduce new dimensions, including a possibility for cultural diversity of a different order from that encountered amongst animals” (Hinde, 1982, p. 201). While, anthropomorphically speaking, some humans attribute mental experiences only to their own species (Griffin, 1981, p. 170), many people believe that animals do have mental experiences and

can be unhappy and also feel happiness, anger and fear … (there is) constant evidence of it before their eyes … animals love and suffer, cry and laugh; their hearts rise up in anticipation and fall in despair. They are lonely, in love, disappointed, or curious; they look back with nostalgia and anticipate future happiness. They feel. No one who has lived with an animal would deny this (Masson, 1995, pp. xiii, xxii).

And, if a dog can feel, then I suggest that they have mental capacity including consciousness.

In order for a dog to “do” or experience humor, we must view him in terms of his mental capacities. However, considering that the existence of animal consciousness “entails a whole nest of knotty and interrelated questions, we must be prepared to give equal weight to evidence for and against our favorite opinions” (Griffin, 1984, pp. 12, 13). But, consider this scene between Sandy when he was two years old and Charlie, a then five-month-old Daschund puppy.

Sandy is sound asleep on the sofa, his toys grouped together on the floor beneath him. Charlie runs around the room, jumps into the pile of toys, and drags one of them to the center of the room. He then begins “eating” it. Sandy instantly awakens, and barks at Charlie. Charlie continues chewing, his huge black eyes looking up at Sandy, who is still on the sofa. Sandy stops barking and begins growling, jumps off the sofa, and literally stands over Charlie and the toy. At this point Charlie releases the toy and runs into my lap for protection.

Certainly, Sandy communicated something to Charlie, and in such a way as to imprint Charlie’s mind. For, in future situations, all Sandy had to do was stand over Charlie, sans a bark or a growl, and Charlie immediately abandoned the toy. However, in these future episodes, Charlie did not run to me for protection, for Sandy must have also communicated that he would not hurt Charlie once the puppy relinquished the object. Thus, Sandy assessed the situation, and Charlie assessed Sandy. Some sort of mental experience must have occurred in these dogs, although it may differ in the nature and complexity of those mental experiences seen in humans. In this, then, how we define mental processes can help us identity what we are talking about in discussing dog consciousness. Certainly, these “terms are obviously difficult to define,” and the meanings of words and concepts “can be quibbled to death by excessive insistence on exact operational definitions” (Griffin, 1981, pp. 11, 12). However, considering “an animal to have a mind if it has such experiences, whether they be simple or complex … (is) important for their social companions to understand” (Griffin, 1981, pp. 12-13).

“Conscious” is defined as being aware of what one is doing or intending to do, and having a purpose and intention in one’s actions. “Consciousness” refers to the totality of the impressions, thoughts, and feelings which make up a person’s conscious being. “Feeling” is a pleasurable or painful consciousness and the emotional appreciation or sense of one’s own condition or of some external fact. And, “thinking” refers to the ability to form, or conceive of, a thought, notion or idea in the mind (Griffin, 1984, p. 5). We are cautioned to remember, however, that human definitions possess “a circular quality, since words are used to define each other” (Ibid). Thus, perhaps blind faith is required to believe that humor, and the mental processes that produce it, exist in a dog.

The implicit denial of mental experiences to animals has become almost an act of faith (which) is supported primarily by arguments and assertions that true language is a unique and characteristic attribute of our species (entailing) “a feeling of ‘own-group superiority'” (Griffin, 1981, p. 88.) On the other hand, “all one needs to do is to look around and not see something and then conclude that the thing that was not seen in a particular species is totally absent in that species” (Griffin, 1981, p. 112). So, while we do not explicitly see dogs belly-laugh or do stand-up comedy, “I think a lot of dogs enjoy being entertainers and playing to an audience” (Kershaw, 1997). In so doing, a dog’s subjective experiences may be different from any of our own, but they are probably quite important to him (Griffin, 1984, pp. 7-8). I posit that dogs not only possess a consciousness but that they are also able to think. It may take blind faith on our part to believe this, but sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming that blind faith is not necessary.

For example, Sandy is well-trained to respond to the usual commands of dog training; however, when I say “come,” his response is not always consistent. When he does not obey, I notice that he indicates understanding by looking up at me and raising his ears on hearing the word. However, he will rather go in another direction, say, in pursuit of a toy. Thus, Sandy made a decision to seek out a toy at that moment rather than obey. In order to make that decision, he must have the ability to think and decide on his course of action.

The most essential aspect of consciousness … is the ability to think about objects and events … It seems likely that animals understand … how their mental experiences relate to objects and events in the world around them. … Clearly a conscious organism must do more than merely react; it must think about something … any thinking animal is likely to guide its behavior at least partly on the basis of the content of its thoughts, so the information constituting that content must be available to the animal (Griffin, 1984, pp. 8-9).

Consider how Sandy guides his behavior when a thrown toy ends up hidden between two pieces of furniture while he diligently works to figure out how to reach it. He will sit and stare in its direction, look to his right, to his left, try one avenue and then another, until he reaches the toy and retrieves it. His ability to always retrieve a hidden object illustrates strong “evidence suggesting (that) animal consciousness stems from (dogs’) enterprising solutions to newly arisen problems” (Griffin, 1984, p. 209). And, I suggest, that Sandy’s ability to find a way to reach the object represents his ability to think.

If consciousness were used as a criterion of mind, “it would be a signally useless one, because the only way to tell whether any other thing is conscious is to ask it. And that you can only do to human beings” (Griffin, 1981, p. 90). Yet, consider behaviors in dogs that were never taught to them by their persons. Sandy has a habit of repeatedly returning toys to his doggie bed when we are done playing. I did not teach him to be so neat, and I seriously doubt that he learned to do this before coming to live with me, as will be explained later on. So, what is going on with this behavior? Since Sandy is an “only dog,” possessiveness of his property could not be motivating this behavior.

It would be absurd to deny that mental experiences are important components in human behavior and human affairs in general. To the extent that animals have them, mental experiences may also be significant in their activities. It is obvious that one could not understand human beings as well, or predict their behavior as accurately, without taking some account of their awareness and intentions. The same consideration applies to other species, insofar as mental experiences are significant in their behavior (Griffin, 1981, p. 133).

And, doing humor in play constitutes a significant behavior in dogs. “If one wants to make the point that we evolved from animals, and we have emotion, therefore animals have emotion, then it seems very reasonable (and obvious) that they have a sense of humor and can laugh” (Maina, 1997). Maina’s advice to me was to research animal play in exploring dog humor, and I will now follow her suggestion.

Doggie Play

While “the study of play joins worlds as separate, narrow, and cloistered as (dance) and experimental science, (it) links disparate minds, and thereby sows seeds of intellectual revolutions that may lie decades or even centuries in the future” (Fagen, 1993, p. 195). The study of play in dogs in not new in scientific study, but translating humor in dogs to play in dogs is relatively novel. Perhaps this discourse will add to the intellectual revolution in viewing humor in domestic dogs as play, which in turn is humor. And, perhaps we see humor in dogs because they make us laugh and feel good. Or, maybe what we call humor should rightfully be called play. In order to explore humor in dogs, we have to broaden the definition of that word (Winters, 1997), and I will broaden it to mean “play” because, in play, dogs obviously have fun, as do their humans when they are so honored to be drawn into the game. Thus, I suggest, that “doing” humor and “being done” by it constitute fun. Indeed, “there is something compelling in the recognition that other creatures enjoy play as much as we do” (Masson, 1995, p. 132). Having said that, I posit that, if humor is fun, and play is fun, then humor is play. And, it is from this perspective that we will view humor in domestic dogs.

“Play may be regarded as a direct expression of the capacity to interact with the environment … (and) reflect(s) an animal’s ability to … anticipate novel stimulation” (Wemelsfelder, 1993, p. 71), such as when Sandy figures out how to retrieve a hidden toy. “In animal play, we see animals solving novel problems (which suggests) the subjective nature of animal behaviour” (Wemelsfelder, 1993, pp. 71, 72, 74). I cannot speak directly to Sandy’s subjective awareness nor on how and why he behaves as he does, for he cannot talk to me in my language. There may be ways to overcome such a communication problem if dogs could actually talk to us, but they can’, at least not in human language. While dogs may not “understand the terminology ‘sense of humor’ they do indeed have a sense of play, which in turn can be very humorous” (Patrice, 1997). But, where did dogs learn how to be so humorous in their play?

The design of certain behaviors “seems to suggest that play evolved through a series of phases involving development of physical capacity and skill, development of close positive dyadic social relationships, assessment of well-being, … integrative aspects of individual personality in relation to the physical and social environment, and a sense of fun (italics mine)” (Fagen, 1995, pp. 39-40). Most dogs are quite ready to show exuberance, joy, and a sense of fun, but that may not mean that they have a sense of humor in human terms in that their joyful behavior may merely be one that provides rewards or pleasure (Allen, 1997). In this, then, dogs would not be considered as having a sense of humor comparable to what we think of as existing in people (Boschert, 1997). However, if dogs can be happy, calm, scared, angry, dominant, submissive, and so forth, “I’m supposing that one might ask, then, why can pets have those emotional states and not also have a sense of humor” (Malocha, 1997). There is, though, a decided difference in the way dogs “do” humor from the way humans do it.

I think that humor is uniquely human – like designing complex machines and planning for retirement. To me, things are funny because of a more complex mental process – perhaps a divergence from logic – and it’s that divergence that makes them humorous. (One expects to see the man walk down the stairs – he falls – its slapstick. One expects a wife to like their husband – she calls him an idiot and it’s funny standup… ) I just don’t believe dogs and cats and birds and gerbils see things that way (Malocha, 1997).

On the other side of the score board is Robert Fagen, Ph.D., an ethologist who specializes in animal play. He believes that dogs indeed have a sense of humor as demonstrated in their play (Fagen, 1997), as does Elizabeth Kershaw (1997). “I live with what has to be one of the worlds most humerus (sic) dog breeds – the Bearded Collie … of course what I don’t know is whether they intend to be humerus or whether they just seem funny to me” (Kershaw, 1997). W. H. “Hank” Halliday, of Wolf Awareness Inc. in Ontario, Canada also believes that it is a short leap to say that dogs have a sense of humor if we say they have a personality, and

since personalities are a fact in these canids (dogs and wolves) I would suggest humour cannot be far behind. When my dog plays, it is not mechanical. He changes the rules to have “fun” with me. He certainly teases me and I would suggest that teasing is a form of humour (Halliday, 1997).

Teasing, and indeed all dog behavior, may also be facilitated through signals with which the dog further communicates to us.


Signals refer to a dog’s verbal sounds, facial expressions, and body movements which are specialized communicative behavior used “to convey information to another animal” (Griffin, 1984, p. 155). Expressions change with a dog’s mood, and they “can even amuse themselves by rolling on their back (while) making all sorts of vocal noises” (Forsyth, 1997). In this, Orca provides an example of verbal communication.

Verbal Signals.

Orca is a 13-year-old Malamute who howls to her owner in a deep husky voice when her person is on the phone talking to a landlord about renting a new apartment. I asked her person if she performs this vocalization at any other time, and he said, “no, she only does this when I am on the phone talking to someone about an apartment to rent.” When asked if Orca makes facial expressions accompanying her howls, her person said that she seems to purse her lips together, much as we do when whistling (Orca, 1997). What is it that Orca is saying in this behavior? How does she know that her person is on the phone with a potential landlord? Is she saying that she doesn’t want to move? She couldn’t be jealous of his attention, for she does not howl when her person is on the telephone at other times. I suggest that Orca must have some conscious awareness of what is going on when she communicates in this manner, as she also displays a facial expression when howling at these moments which differs from her facial expressions at other times. “There is a visual signal (open mouth, a particular lip and muzzle posture) that suggests at least joy and possibly amusement” (McConnell, 1997). So, perhaps Orca was joyful at the prospect of moving, or maybe she merely wanted to amuse her person. However, it does seem clear “that some animals communicate complex messages so closely attuned to the nuance of the social situation that great caution is called for in reaching … definite conclusions” that they cannot communicate (Griffin, 1981, pp.73-74).

Sandy has a vocal repertoire unlike any I have seen in a dog. When he wants to play or go out and I am moving too slowly for him, he will sit in the middle of the house and begin uttering a long, high-pitched whine. If I do not appear at his side post haste, the pitch of his whine becomes lower. If I still am not responding to his beckoning, he lets out a series of eardrum-piercing barks, with a pause between each bark, as if to say, “Get over here!” When I finally come to him, he is waiting with sparkling wide eyes and an open, relaxed mouth, which says, “Gotcha Ya!” Granted, this is an anthropomorphic translation on my part; however, this series of barks differs from those he uses when someone rings the door bell, for that “warning bark” involves a series of loud, sharp, nonstop barks, during which his mouth is tightly pursed. Sandy also “speaks” to me when he wants to play and I am working at the computer. He sits next to my chair, silent and motionless, staring at me until I look down at him. If I don’t get up to play with him or take him out, he begins “talking,” first with a low growl, which then grows louder and higher-pitched until I get up.

Certainly, the human is the only animal that can talk in “human language,” but Sandy is definitely “talking” to me when I am too slow in meeting his demands. While Noam Chomsky refers to the human ability for language as “a species-specific capacity,” (Griffin, 1991, p. 74) some humans also have the ability to communicate without spoken language. Consider sign language, which of course is based on human language, but which is not facilitated through spoken language, either in hearing-impaired humans or in primates who have learned to sign. So, who can say that dogs do not also employ language to communicate with us, and with each other? Their language may just be a foreign one that we have not yet learned. In addition to sounds, dogs communicate through their facial expressions, some of which have been previously mentioned as appearing on Sandy’s face.

Facial Expressions/Smiling.

A large role is played by nonverbal communication in many species as seen in facial expressions.8 Andy, a 3-year-old Akita mix, will eat only when his back, directly in front of his tail, is being vigorously scratched by his person. He sits in front of his food dish and silently looks up with a tilted head, offering an expectant expression that seems to say, “I’ll eat if you scratch me.” While being scratched, Andy eats – until his person stops scratching. He will then look up with the same sort of facial request as before. When the scratching resumes, so does his eating (Andy, 1997). The messages conveyed in gestures such as these “tend to be rather general and often convey emotional states rather than specific information about discrete objects” (Griffin, 1984, pp. 160-161). Still, it is easy, at least for dog-lovers and dog owners, to recognize meaning in their dog’s facial expressions.

The previous “Sandy Gotcha Ya” example demonstrates one signal, that of a “relaxed, open-mouthed facial expression” without panting which humans might call smiling. Dr. Winters (1997) related a situation which he found humorous, and which he suggested the dog in question did too. He was putting a German Shepard to sleep in his person’s home. This lady had already dug a grave in the backyard. The dog went to sleep peacefully, and then was carried out to the grave. Dr. Winters and the lady were getting ready to lower the Shepard into the grave, when they looked down and saw the lady’s other dog “standing in the grave looking up at us with a rather quizzical look … he was just sitting there … just perched right down there … if he could have smiled, I think he would have” (Winters, 1997). Now, this little terrier may have been confused, or he may have been reluctant to “let go” of his canine companion, but we can also suggest devilish humor in his facial expression, just as Dr. Winters did. Such “smiling” expressions can also be an “invitation to play.”9

In regards to dogs actually smiling, as humans understand a smile, much observation has been made in primates, resulting in

some interesting suggestions concerning its probably phyletic origin … On the basis of evidence drawn from a wide variety of sources, van Hooff (1972) suggested that smiling and laughter vary along at least two dimensions … friendliness and playfulness … many species have a ‘play face,’ often accompanied by vocalizations, which seems to signify, ‘What I do is only in play, and not serious.’ … (others) a ‘fear grin’ or a ‘silent bared teeth’ display, sometimes accompanied by vocalizations (Hinde, 1982, p. 213).

While dogs may not laugh, several dog breeds exhibit smiles,

especially Belgian Shepherds … their face is wrinkled like in threat but they do not show a lot of teeth, and the tail is wagging. It’s more a grimace than a smile. Several dogs do that when people laugh, or to make people laugh. They even can do it on command. (Dehasse, 1997).

There is also “laugh contagion (in which dogs will) respond well to peoples’ smiles and laughs, wagging their tail with them” (Ibid). I’ve never been able to command one of my dogs to smile, but I do know how to get Sandy’s tail wagging as he assumes certain postures while we do the “humor dance” together.

Body Posturing and Movement.

The dance of play is “the distinctive choreography of animal play (which) allow(s) us to recognize and characterize play in animals” (Fagen, 1995, p. 32). In this, dogs display an “inventiveness in movement, or playfulness itself,” not unlike that seen “from the perspective of performance, including Western concert dance” (Fagen, 1995, p. 38). Sandy has a very distinctive dance during our nightly play in which the first three inches of his long tail go up high, with the end of it going straight down, forming a ninety degree angle to the floor. He not merely runs, but leaps and jumps much as a kangaroo. He “dances” at high speeds through the kitchen, around into the livingroom, does a figure-8 under the dining room table, then races back down the hall into the bedroom, reverses, goes back through the kitchen, around the table, into the living room, around me (while I sit in the middle of the room), and back down the hall and into the bedroom. In this nightly ritual, Sandy is communicating with his body language. He gleefully has fun and also invites me to play with him, as he establishes how that play is to be done. By his actions, Sandy demonstrates “the paths in space followed during chases (which) may be more intricate, with reversals of direction (and) reversals of role in which the chaser becomes the animals being chased,” with sharp turns being accomplished (Fagen, 1995, p. 31). In my household, however, Sandy is both the chaser and the chased, as if he envisions another (imaginary) dog in the house. Sometimes, when I can, I will chase, or be chased by, him for a short distance, which causes him to do his dance with even greater vigor.

“A possible starting point in the dog for an inquiry into ‘humour’ might be the game of ‘chase me’ where the dog ‘play bows’ and teases another into chase behavior” (Walker, 1997). The play bow is

when a canid lowers its forelegs to the ground and waves its tail … (this) is a way of saying, “everything that follows is just a game. Are you ready to play?” Dogs will attempt to play with another animals, cats, for example, but are usually disappointed in their lack of fluency in or indifference to this canid metalanguage. This gives special poignancy to the play between a dog and its human friend as if dogs recognize that they have found a companion in which they can teach the rules. Nor do they seem unhappy at trying to figure out human rules for the games we wish to play with them. The concentrated posture a dog assumes over a stick he is waiting for his human friend to move is obviously meant to be slightly humorous: that is part of the game. Playing these games is almost like looking through a window into the dog’s mind. We see what he intends. And the dog, too, gets a clear glimpse into our minds and knows what we want (Masson, p. 132).

It appears that Sandy wants me to play “chase me” or “retrieve” when placing his elbows on the floor, back side up, for the placement of a dog’s elbows on the floor may “serve to initiate and maintain play and to communicate information about the immediate well-being of the players” (Fagen, 1995, p. 32). (Well-being will be further discussed under consequences of humor to follow.) In addition, playing games with humans is a way for dogs to exhibit their humor to us, especially in playing “lead or dead doggie.” This

involves the dog making him or herself as heavy as they possibly can and laying absolutely still and literally pushing their body on the couch, sofa or bed or whatever you’re trying to move them off of while they are laying down or trying to sleep or nap. Dogs tend to find this amusing, as lifting or even dragging 65 lbs. of ‘dead weight’ can be quite a challenge when you yourself are tired. Another aspect of playing ‘lead or dead doggie’ involves laying down right next to you in bed, facing you, while stretching out their legs as they try to push themselves down the mattress, effectively pushing you out of their way (Michalski, 1997)!

Sandy weighs only 15 pounds, but he has nearly pushed me off the bed more than once.

In their play, we can also say that the dogs described herein demonstrate a sense of well-being, which I see as an important component in doing humor, and in being done by it, insofar as consequences of dog humor are concerned.

Consequences of Doggie Humor

Humor may be a “fear coping strategm” or an “emotion of relief” (Walker, 1997), and it may also serve to “alleviate the detrimental effects of social isolation” (Wemelsfelder, 1993, p. 75), as we shall soon see having occurred in Sandy’s life. Dog humor also establishes and/or maintains a sense of well-being for canids and humans alike, and communicates something to another animal (including a human) with motivation or intent, as I posit the aforementioned body posturing, facial expressions and verbal responses indicate.


Well-being in a dog “has special significance” (Fagen, 1995, p. 33). Although one significance of play is “survival and reproduction across different animal species” (Fagen, 1995, p. 35), and while play is only possible when you are not busy trying to survive (Dehasse, 1997), play in adult dogs also “has the shape of love” (Fagen, 1995, p. 35). Play in nature most often occurs between parent and offspring or between prospective or actual mates (Ibid), but I suggest that in a domesticated animal, play incorporates “social bonding functions rather than development of specific motor skills or survival abilities.” That is, there is a “persistence of play … in precisely those social contexts involving the closest, most intimate, and potentially most emotionally positive kinds of dyadic relationships” (Fagen, 1995, p. 36). Play in these relationships involve “individual creativity, interpretation, improvisation, and cultural transmission.” Such are the “essentials of juvenile primate play,” (Fagen, 1993, p. 194), and why, too, could they not be in juvenile and adults dogs? An interesting example from primate studies relates to dogs as surrogate mothers for infant monkeys. These studies suggest

that dyadic responsiveness, and very possibly play itself, is important for normal social development. Dogs were much more effective than passive mechanical ‘mothers’ (for the infant monkeys because) play captures many of the elements of companionship (which is) important in primate and in social canid development, and was one major experiential difference between the monkeys raised by dogs and (those) raised by mechanical surrogates (Fagen, 1993, p. 195).

These studies are especially applicable to Sandy. When I first met him, he was cowering in the corner of a cage at an animal rescue organization where I volunteered, and was so thin that I could see his rib cage through his curly tufts (he is part Bichon, part Poodle). I was asked to work with him for two weeks to get him adoptable, and so I took him home. There, he exhibited motor uncoordination when walking, or a stiff body position when approached by humans. He spent his days curled up in a remote corner or under the bed. He may have been a “normal,” active puppy at one time in his life, but he was extremely passive when we met, obviously due to severe abuse and neglect. He did not appear to me to have had the type of mothering, nor the type of childhood, required to produce a happy, confident, well-adjusted eighteen month old dog when I took him home. So, in effect, I became his surrogate mother and taught him to accept affection, tummy rubs, grooming (which is an important social behavior among primates) – and how to have fun.

Wemelsfelder (1993) suggests that “the transition from an active to a passive mode of behaviour is initially experienced by the animal as boredom, and subsequently as depression and/or anxiety in the final stages” (Wemelsfelder, 1993, p. 66). She calls this “stereotyped behaviour” in which an animal may “show an overall reduction in behavioural diversity … and may frequently assume immobile bodily postures” with a decreased “tendency to interact with environmental stimuli.” There may also be apathetic behavior (Wemelsfelder, 1993, pp. 80-81, 84). Sandy, indeed, appeared to be apathetic, showing little interest in my attention nor in that of my other, aged dog (who died eight months after Sandy joined us), and he was quite uninterested in playing with us. In fact, he did not even know how to play!

The fun of play can shape a young primate’s developing interpretations of a challenging new social and physical world in positive directions. But if fear of such novelty, itself highly adaptive at times (per Hinde, 1987), overwhelms fun … (then) development may be slowed or diverted into different pathways (Fagen, 1993, p. 195).

The “fun of play” can also shape a dog’s development, and I think that Sandy’s “different pathways” resulted from being severely isolated and ignored as a young dog. He would not let me or anyone hold him or even touch him, which I took as a sign of fear and possibly depression. However, if such an “animal were to be permanently transferred to an enriched environment, it may be expected that the animal would return to its normally variable and flexible behavioural repertoire” (Wemelsfelder, 1993, p. 85). After working with Sandy for about two years and literally forcing him to let me hold, rock, kiss and groom him, he indeed became “adoptable” – by me! As is evident in Sandy’s anecdotes described herein, his present behaviors indicate a complete turn-around, for he now demonstrates an “anticipatory, flexible character (such as that seen) in exploration and play (which) expresses a state of general subjective integrity or well-being” (Wemelsfelder, 1993, p. 67). Sandy was a dog in great distress without a hint of play or humor in him three years ago, but, what we see now as we watch him dance and play is “a wild display of flamboyant yet elegant fun” (Fagen, 1995, p. 195).

Play in both humans and nonhumans involves many of the same characteristic body movements and communicative signal patterns.10 The functional significance of animal play, “so far as is known,” involves three aspects of social relationships. Play contributes to future reproductive success and indicates current well-being; play helps animals learn in which situations to act in self-defense and when not to (as seen in rats); and “play is important in developing and maintaining close, emotionally positive dyadic social relationships” (Fagen, 1995, p. 40). It is the latter of these functions that so greatly benefits both the dog and his person. “Whether or not we accept that animals have fun in the human sense of the word, it is undeniable that animals have a biological interest in their own and others’ well-being” (Fagen, 1992b, p. 40). They may even be able to foresee future consequences or imply intent in their playful actions.


Ethologists have found the term ‘intention movement’ widely applicable to those postures and relatively slight movements of animals that convey to other animals reliable information about probable future behavior. … Since both conspecifics and human observers can predict the future behavior of an animal from its intention movements, it seems remarkably unparsimonious to assume that the animal executing the intention movement cannot anticipate the next steps in its own behavior (Griffin, 1981, p. 94).

Ellie, a small 9-year-old “Heinz variety,” is very possessive of two tennis balls, her favorite toys. She plays alone with one of these balls, taking it into her mouth, swinging her head down and then up to the side, subsequently releasing the ball which then hurls through the air. She proceeds to chase it, fetch it, return to the spot whence she first flung it, and then repeats this entire procedure. Since her person has never played with her in this manner, we could say that Ellie has learned to anticipate future events in flinging the ball, for that movement always causes the ball to hurl across the room. She also knows what will happen if she flings the ball in a wrong direction. In this case, the ball rolls under a low-setting piece of furniture, which makes it unretrievable, and, so, Ellie no longer flings the ball in that direction (Ellie, 1997). Both Sandy and Ellie also know that if they have an accident in the house, they will be verbally scolded. In an anticipatory fashion, when I or Ellie’s person return home, our respective dogs are hiding in a corner or closet rather than jumping all over us with their customary “hello.” Thus, they are apparently anticipating the consequences of their past actions and future human responses.

Consider a Bearded Collie, as our last example of motivation and intention, who plays “her own version of football with a squeaky ball,” in which she appears to be “mimicking human behaviour.” She pushes the ball with her nose, and her persons are then allowed to kick the ball back.

The aim was to get the ball past her to score a goal and for her to stop the ball passing and return it to us for further play. Her agile goal keeping skills were incredible. From time to time she started a series of squeaks with the ball before returning it and clearly expected us to squeak back when it was our turn. Inaccurate pushes were retrieved quickly by her for a replay (Kershaw, 1997).

Sandy also squeaks his toys during playtime, and if I don’t squeak another of his toys back, he stops playing with me! In these games, it would appear that the dogs are exhibiting intention and/or motivation, which in turn suggests evidence for their mental ability.

When animals communicate to one another they may be conveying something about their thoughts or feelings (and, so) eavesdropping on the communicative signals they exchange may provide us with a practicable source of data about their mental experiences (as well as their humor in play). … The communication behavior of other species is bound to suggest conscious thought roughly to the extent that it shares essential features with human speech. In allowing ourselves to entertain the notion that animals may be aware of past, present, and future events, or may experience mental images … it certainly is not necessary to assume that such mental experiences are at all similar to those which a person might have under analogous circumstances (Griffin, 1981, p. 87; Griffin, 1984, p. 39).


If we take humor to mean an “outpouring of joviality” (Winters, 1997) in which humans are having fun, then in a sense they are playing. When animals play, they, too, are having fun. Therefore, if humor is fun and play is fun, then by logical deduction humor is play. Many the reader will consider this statement to be the epitome of illogic, and least the reader think that research concerning humor in dogs to be ludicrous, if not altogether hysterical, I caution you to “profit from adopting a comic approach” to this question (for) there is, today, increased scientific inquiry into “humor, laughter, and the ‘lighter side’ of play” (Fagen, 1995, p. 41).

There is a power in our relationships with dogs in which we share feelings that are reserved only for our closest family members. Why is it that dogs are so extraordinary in their multidimensional behaviors? Are they born this way, or is it their desire to serve us or demonstrate their devotion to us? Is it their intelligence or their endless desire to please? And what is this bond that draws together two species? “Is it something we will ever understand? Do we need to? Whatever it is, it seems it will last forever” (“Nature,” 1997).

And, why do we continue to study domestic dogs? Because, they are “unsurpassed observers (and) may perceive things about us or about the world that would surprise us. Without animals … we can’t even identify what we don’t know” (Thomas, 1993, p. 143), and “we need to understand animals to understand ourselves” (Patrice, 1997). “Marvellous as may be the power of my dog to understand my moods, deathless as is his affection and fidelity, his mental state is as unsolved a mystery to me as it was to my remote ancestor” (Fogle, 1990, p. xviii, quote by Williams James), and so – a mystery it largely remains for this writer and the reader. However, “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science” (Strum, 1987, p. xi, quote from Albert Einstein). If, indeed, I have failed to shed any light at all on the nature of play and humor in dogs, then that is all the more reason why we should continue to unravel this mysterious nature of one of our closest companions, the dog.


Allen, J. 1997. E-mail.
Andy. 1997. Interview with his owner, 3/6/97.
Boschert, K. 1997. E-mail.
Dehasse, J. 1997. E-mail.
Ellie. 1997. Interview with her owner, 2/23/97.
Encarta95. 1994. Microsoft Corporation, Funk & Wagnall’s Corporation.
Fagen, Robert. 1992a. Moving beyond words in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (15:2): 275-276. (Dr. Fagen kindly mailed me these five articles, since all his books have been checked out of the UCLA libraries for the duration of this quarter.)
Fagen, Robert. 1992b. Play, fun, and communication of well-being in Play and Culture (5): 40-58.
Fagen, Robert. 1993. Primate juveniles and primate play in Pereira, M.E. & Fairbanks, L. A., eds. Juvenile Primates: Life History, Development and Behavior. New York: Oxford Press.
Fagen, Robert. 1995. Animal play, games of angels, biology, and brian in Pellegrini, A.D., ed. The Future of Play Theory: A Multidisciplinary Inquiry Into the Contributions of Brian Sutton-Smith. Albany: SUNY Press.
Fagen, Robert. 1996. Individual distinctiveness in brown bears, Ursus arctos L. in Ethology (102): 212-226.
Fagen, Robert. 1997. E-mail.
Fogle, B. 1990. The Dog’s Mind: Understanding Your Dog’s Behavior. New York: Howell Book House, Maxmillian Publishing.
Forsyth, G. 1997. E-mail.
Griffin, D.R. 1981. The Question of Animal Awareness. New York: The Rockefeller University Press.
Griffin, D.R. 1984. Animal Thinking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Halliday, W. 1997. E-mail.
Hinde, R.A. 1982. Ethology, Its Nature and Relations with Other Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press.
Internet. 1997.
Kershaw, E. 1997. E-mail.
Maina, D. 1997. E-mail.
Malocha, P. 1997. E-mail.
Masson, J.M. (1995) When Elephants Weep, The Emotional Lives of Animals. New York: Delacorte Press
McConnell, P. 1997. E-mail.
Michalski, D. 1997. E-mail.
Microsoft Bookshelf, 1995.
Mulkay, Michael. 1988. Entering the humorous mode in On Humour: Its Nature and Place in Modern Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Nature.” 3/2/97, PBS (Channel 28, Los Angeles).
Orca. 1997. Interview with her owner, 2/21/97.
Patrice. 1997. E-mail.
Strum, S.C. 1987. Almost Human: A Journey into the World of Baboons. New York: W. W. Norton.
Thomas, E.M. (1993). The Hidden Life of Dogs. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Verkerk, G. 1997. E-mail.
Walker, R. 1997. E-mail.
Wemelsfelder, F. 1993. The concept of animal boredom and its relationship to stereotyped behavior in Lawrence, A.B. & Rushen, J., eds., Stereotypic Animal Behaviour: Fundamentals and Applications to Welfare, pp. 65-95. (Dr. Wemelsfelder is currently working on a research project at the Scottish Agricultural College in Edinburgh, Scotland and was kind enough to mail me these two articles.)
Wemelsfelder, F. 1997. Investigating the animal’s point of view. An enquiry into a subject-based method of measurement in the field of animal welfare in Dol, M. et. al., eds, Animal Consciousness and Animal Ethics, pp. 74-89.
Winters, J. 1997. Interview on 2/25/97.


  1. The word “dogs” will hereafter be used to refer to domestic dogs. Dogs will be the only domestic animals focused on in this discourse.
  2. I feel the same as Thomas when she says that “like most people who hunger to know more about the lives of animals, I have always wanted to enter into the consciousness of a nonhuman creature. … I would like to visit a dog’s mind, to know what he’s thinking and feeling…” (Thomas, 1993, p. 120).
  3. Anthropomorphism is the “attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena” (Microsoft Bookshelf, 1995). “People have always been fascinated by the question of animal consciousness, because … pets … arouse our admiration and curiosity. They tempt us to put ourselves into their skins and imagine what their lives are like. But is this possible?” (Griffin, 1984, p. 1). Obviously it is not, not without employing a slight anthropomorphic stance because the only language we have at hand is human language.
  4. When I suggested that it is not easy for humans to define humor in humans, Dr. Winters answered in the context of the Sociology of Humor. “Well, that’s true. It’s so individualized. Yes, and the expressions vary, and then your interpretation of what’s humorous. There’s a vast spectrum of the types of humor … what actually incites a humorous response? … people say, ‘Oh, you have such a sense of humor.’ But, that varies, too, because some have a dry sense of humor. Others are just so vivacious, and they’re always full of humor and smiling and happy” (Winters, 1997). Perhaps it is “happy” people who see, or are willing to accept, that domestic dogs “do” humor!
  5. What fascinated Masson, a former psychoanalyst, “about animals was the ready access they seemed to have to their emotions … they demonstrated their feelings constantly. Annoy them, they have no hesitation in showing it … A dog wags its tail and looks more genuinely pleased to see you than any human. What could appear as happy as a dog? Could anything seem as peaceful as a cow? Or are these merely human projections?” (Masson, 1995, p. xvi).
  6. Ethology’s roots are biological, but in considering if domestic dogs have a capacity for “doing” humor, it is not possible to investigate the biological aspects of the animal. For, humor is a quality that does not reside in a bone or a muscle. In addition, this is a social science inquiry, not a physical science exploration. It is also a very challenging inquiry because determining “an animal’s behavior is difficult, but this is no reason for not making the attempt to do so. If it were not difficult, there would be very little interest in the study of animal behaviour” (Griffin, 1984, p. 9). Interestingly, the three founders of ethology are Nobel Prize winners: Konrad Lorenz of Austria, Nikolaas Tinbergen of the Netherlands, and Karl von Frisch of West Germany (Encarta, 1995). (Richard Dawkins was an undergraduate in Tinbergen’s classes at UC Berkeley where he developed a special protégée/mentor relationship with him. In 1965, Dawkins argued for an ethology of the gene and subsequently became “the first true ethologist of the gene.” In this, Dawkins shifted away from the individual animal as the unit of evolution to the nature, nurture, and behavior of genes and offered scientists a conceptual bridge between the reductionist imperatives of molecular biology and zoology, psychology, and sociology (Internet, 1997). I e-mailed Dawkins about this project, and he kindly referred me to certain ethologists in the literature, which I had already located, and wished me luck!
  7. “Classical ethologists observed animals in their own households” because of the close social contact household pets afforded them in their observations of animal behavior (Fagen, 1995, p. 27). Although I am not a formal ethologist, the intimate relationship I have with Sandy will serve to provide many anecdotes herein. However, such observation “is a double edged sword for we often make the mistake of interpreting (a dog’s) behaviour in human rather than canine terms” (Fogle, 1990, p. 191). Obviously, since this paper is being written by a human about dog behavior, the content will be in human terms, thus incorporating some anthropomorphism – the “double edged sword” notwithstanding.
  8. A comment of some fame is “that if a lion could talk, we would not be able to understand it.” This comment “is frequently cited to argue that animal expressions, to us, are a closed book.” However, “although we could not grasp the meaning of a lion’s words, we can learn to understand its expression” (Wemelsfelder, 1997, p. 86, in Notes). And – that is the task at hand here in trying to understand humor/play in domestic dogs.
  9. See Jack Katz (1996) for an interesting discussion of “invitation to play” by persons standing before fun house mirrors in France.
  10. See Jack Katz (1996) for an interesting discussion of image juxtapositioning before fun house mirrors in France which involves body movements and communicative signals between participants.

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