By Maura McAndrew
We often marvel at how âhumanâ dogs can beâthe way they look at us, the behaviors they engage in, the sounds they make. But the truth is, itâs not just our perception. Studies have shown that animals feel many of the same emotions people do, but they often communicate in ways we donât understand.
Take laughter, for instance. In the early 2000s, psychologist and animal behaviorist Patricia Simonet conducted groundbreaking research on vocalizations made by dogs. She found that, âDuring play encounters dogs vocalize using at least four distinct patterns; barks, growls, whinesâŚand a pronounced breathy forced exhalation (dog-laugh).â She determined this sound to be laugh-like because it was the only one of these vocalizations uttered exclusively during play.
So is it really true that dogs can laugh? While the research of Simonet and others makes a compelling case, whether any dog vocalizations can be called âlaughterâ is still an issue of debate among animal behaviorists. âCertainly researchers?Konrad Lorenz and Patricia Simonet?have asserted that dogs laugh,â says Dr. Liz Stelow, behavior specialist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. âIâm not sure I can confirm or deny that this happens, although Simonetâs research is compelling in the effect that the sound has on members of the canine species.â Here she refers to the finding that hearing a dog-laugh âinitiates pro-social behaviorâ in other dogs. Pro-social behavior can be defined as anything dogs do that is intended to benefit other individuals rather than themselves.
Dr. Marc Bekoff, dog expert and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, is also tentatively convinced by the research in this area. âYes, thereâs a âplay-pant,â which a lot of people call laughter,â he explains. âI think we need to be careful, but I donât think thereâs any reason to say that dogs arenât doing what we might call the functional equivalent or the sound?of laughter.â
Observing 'Happiness'?in Dogs
To better understand the âdog-laugh,â we must first consider the idea of dog âhappiness.â How do we know if a dog is happyâand can we ever really know? The key is looking at a dogâs body language and actions, explains Stelow. âRelaxed body language indicates contentment and a âbouncyâ body language indicates excitement in most dogs,â she says. But ââhappinessâ is less commonly used as a scientific descriptor of mental state, as itâs pretty anthropomorphic [meaning it ascribes human characteristics to non-humans].â?
âBehaviorally, you can look at the whole body: a wagging tail, a smile, a very relaxed gait,â explains Bekoff, whose forthcoming book Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, explores the emotional lives of dogs. Wait a minute, you might be thinking, dogs can smile? Bekoff thinks so. âPeople say, âwell we donât really know that dogs are smiling.â While that might be true, if their lips are drawn back and itâs a situation where we would imagine that they are having fun, then I donât see anything lost by saying theyâre smiling,â he says. âWe say the same thing about a baby.â
Bekoff and Stelow both point out that if a dog is doing something voluntarily (not being coerced or offered some reward), we can reasonably assume itâs an activity he or she enjoys. If Rover willingly engages in a game or curls up next to you on the couch, observe his body language. Is his tail in a neutral position or wagging to the right? (Research has shown a âright wagâ is associated with âhappierâ situations.) Are his ears up or relaxed rather than pinned to his head? While we canât be 100 percent certain, our experts note, these signs point to happy.
Your happy dog might sometimes vocalize what Simonet called a âdog-laugh.â But what does that sound like? âThe play-pant [dog laugh] is a breathy inhale and exhalation,â Bekoff says. âItâs not been studied very much, but lots of species do it. And it can be used as a play invitation signal, or animals do it during play.â
Stelow adds that this play-pant is often accompanied by an expression of âlips pulled back, tongue out, and eyes softly closedââŚ in other words, a dog smile. She stresses that context is everything in differentiating between a possible dog-laugh and another type of vocalization. âThe body language should suggest itâs an invitation to play or continue playing, and not some other message. Play bows, teasing jumps toward the person or dog, a paw forward to make contact, and a relaxed face suggest itâs playful.â?
Aside from Simonetâs work, Bekoff explains, there are other studies of animal laughter that give us clues about these dog vocalizations. âThere are some very rigorous studies that show that rats laugh. When you look at the sonogram or the recordings of that vocalization, it resembles human laughter,â he says. He cites the work of Jaak Panksepp, a neurobiologist whose most famous study found that when tickled, domesticated rats emitted a high-pitched sound bearing a close relationship to human laughter. And there have been similar studies of non-human primates, which have reached the same conclusion: yes, they laugh.?
No Two Dogs Are Alike
One tough thing about identifying a possible dog-laugh is that each dog is different. âThe actual sound made is pretty dog-dependent,â Stelow says. âThe classic âlaughâ is described as sounding like a harsh pant, but in the context of a fun moment. But a yip, bark, whine, or even a growl also can suggest joy in (and interest in continuing) the activity, as long as the body language matches.â
âDogs are as individual as humans,â Bekoff says. âIâve lived with enough dogs to know that even litter mates have individual personalities.â This is important to remember when making any assertions about dogs in general, he notes. âSome people have said things like âdogs donât like to be hugged.â Well, thatâs not true. Some dogs donât like it and some dogs do. And we should just pay attention to what an individual dogâs needs are.â
Every pet owner wants to make his or her dog as happy as can be. But the best way to do this is to know the dog and observe his likes and dislikesâdog-laughter is just one small indicator. âSome dogs are never happier than when chasing a ball or running through an open field. Others like to wrestle. Some prefer cuddle time on the sofa. Whatever the dog prefers is the best way to make that dog âhappy,ââ Stelow says.
Still More to Discover
While Simonet and others have begun to explore the âdog-laugh,â Bekoff notes that there is plenty more work to be done on the vocalizations and emotions of our canine friends. âWhat I do find exciting about this is how much we know and how much we donât know,â he says. âPeople should really be paying attention to the sort of research that still needs to be done before they say, âoh, dogs donât do this or canât do this.ââ
Many people assume that other animals are either not emotional or donât express their emotions, Bekoff explains. But just because animals express things differently doesnât mean those rich emotional lives arenât there under the surface. âIâve had people say, âdogs donât laugh!ââ he says. â[But] they pant, they growl, they whimper, they howl, they bark. Why wouldnât you call one of those vocalizations laughter, and go study it?â