By Maura McAndrew
We often marvel at how “human” dogs can be—the way they look at us, the behaviors they engage in, the sounds they make. But the truth is, it’s not just our perception. Studies have shown that animals feel many of the same emotions people do, but they often communicate in ways we don’t 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, “During play encounters dogs vocalize using at least four distinct patterns; barks, growls, whines…and a pronounced breathy forced exhalation (dog-laugh).” 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 “laughter” is still an issue of debate among animal behaviorists. “Certainly researchers Konrad Lorenz and Patricia Simonet have asserted that dogs laugh,” says Dr. Liz Stelow, behavior specialist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “I’m not sure I can confirm or deny that this happens, although Simonet’s research is compelling in the effect that the sound has on members of the canine species.” Here she refers to the finding that hearing a dog-laugh “initiates pro-social behavior” 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. “Yes, there’s a ‘play-pant,’ which a lot of people call laughter,” he explains. “I think we need to be careful, but I don’t think there’s any reason to say that dogs aren’t doing what we might call the functional equivalent or the sound of laughter.”
Observing 'Happiness' in Dogs
To better understand the “dog-laugh,” we must first consider the idea of dog “happiness.” How do we know if a dog is happy—and can we ever really know? The key is looking at a dog’s body language and actions, explains Stelow. “Relaxed body language indicates contentment and a ‘bouncy’ body language indicates excitement in most dogs,” she says. But “‘happiness’ is less commonly used as a scientific descriptor of mental state, as it’s pretty anthropomorphic [meaning it ascribes human characteristics to non-humans].”
“Behaviorally, you can look at the whole body: a wagging tail, a smile, a very relaxed gait,” 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. “People say, ‘well we don’t really know that dogs are smiling.’ While that might be true, if their lips are drawn back and it’s a situation where we would imagine that they are having fun, then I don’t see anything lost by saying they’re smiling,” he says. “We say the same thing about a baby.”
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 it’s 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 “right wag” is associated with “happier” situations.) Are his ears up or relaxed rather than pinned to his head? While we can’t be 100 percent certain, our experts note, these signs point to happy.
Your happy dog might sometimes vocalize what Simonet called a “dog-laugh.” But what does that sound like? “The play-pant [dog laugh] is a breathy inhale and exhalation,” Bekoff says. “It’s 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.”
Stelow adds that this play-pant is often accompanied by an expression of “lips pulled back, tongue out, and eyes softly closed”… in other words, a dog smile. She stresses that context is everything in differentiating between a possible dog-laugh and another type of vocalization. “The body language should suggest it’s 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 it’s playful.”
Aside from Simonet’s work, Bekoff explains, there are other studies of animal laughter that give us clues about these dog vocalizations. “There 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,” 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. “The actual sound made is pretty dog-dependent,” Stelow says. “The classic ‘laugh’ 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.”
“Dogs are as individual as humans,” Bekoff says. “I’ve lived with enough dogs to know that even litter mates have individual personalities.” This is important to remember when making any assertions about dogs in general, he notes. “Some people have said things like ‘dogs don’t like to be hugged.’ Well, that’s not true. Some dogs don’t like it and some dogs do. And we should just pay attention to what an individual dog’s needs are.”
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 dislikes—dog-laughter is just one small indicator. “Some 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 ‘happy,’” Stelow says.
Still More to Discover
While Simonet and others have begun to explore the “dog-laugh,” Bekoff notes that there is plenty more work to be done on the vocalizations and emotions of our canine friends. “What I do find exciting about this is how much we know and how much we don’t know,” he says. “People should really be paying attention to the sort of research that still needs to be done before they say, ‘oh, dogs don’t do this or can’t do this.’”
Many people assume that other animals are either not emotional or don’t express their emotions, Bekoff explains. But just because animals express things differently doesn’t mean those rich emotional lives aren’t there under the surface. “I’ve had people say, ‘dogs don’t laugh!’” he says. “[But] they pant, they growl, they whimper, they howl, they bark. Why wouldn’t you call one of those vocalizations laughter, and go study it?”