Can Dogs Laugh?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz May 22, 2020
Dogs have evolved alongside humans for thousands of years (Pennisi, 2002). It makes sense then that dogs and humans would have developed similar communication signals. Studies have shown that dogs will use eye contact, touch, smiles, and yes, even laughter to express their feelings and needs to their fellow humans (Simonet, 2001). Now, before we get too far, you’re likely not going to witness your dog giggling or full belly laughing. Their laughs are different than the ones we’re used to. This article will explain what a dog’s laugh sounds like and how we can use laughter to strengthen the bond between us and our pets.
What Is The Difference Between A Dog Laugh Versus A Human Laugh?
Laughter is often described as the visual expression of positive emotional states. Human laughter occurs in response to humor, feelings of delight, or from being tickled. Humans may also use laughter as a way to cope with uncomfortable or awkward situations. When humans laugh, their diaphragm and other parts of their respiratory system contract rhythmically forcibly exhaling air and often produce an audible sound.
A dog’s laugh, on the other hand, is much quieter and less pronounced. When dog’s laugh, they do not use their vocal cords to produce an audible sound. Instead, they make a panting-like sound. Think of it as more of a pronounced breathy forced exhalation (Simonet et al., 2001; Simonet, 2004). In fact, literature often refers to dog laughs as ‘play-pants’. To the untrained ear, a regular pant and a play-pant may sound very similar. However, when scientists closely examined the sound properties of the two pant types, they found them to be distinctly different. Play-pants have a broader range of frequencies than a typical pant (Simonet et al., 2005).
Is Laughing Unique to Dogs and Humans?
Dogs are not the only species in which scientists have detected laugh-like vocalizations during play behavior. Chimpanzees and other great apes (gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) will emit a breathy exhale without the use of vocal cords (similar to a dog’s play-pant) during play or when being tickled (Gardner and Gardner, 1989). Rats will also emit a high-pitched chirping sound when being tickled by humans. This tickling is done to emulate rough-and-tumble play that rats will do with one another, and these chirps are associated with the feeling of pleasure (Burgdorf and Panksepp, 2001; Panksepp, 2005).
Can Dogs Laugh?
Yes, they can. Every dog has the ability to laugh. However, dogs are individuals and will have different sounding laughs and different propensities towards laughing. Due to the vast differences in dog anatomy across different breeds, the sound produced from a play-pant may vary widely between individuals. Additionally, there may be differences between breeds as to how likely they are to play-pant. Some breeds are just more vocal than others! While these genetic differences exist, context is going to play the largest role in whether or not laughing occurs. Laughing is most likely to occur before and during play. Dogs are most likely to play when they are in a relaxed state, adequately fed, and healthy (Blass, 2012). Additionally, the bond between a dog and their playing companion can affect the likelihood of laughter occurring. Dogs are going to be more comfortable engaging in their favorite activity with a trusted companion than with someone new, and thus are more likely to laugh from pleasure or excitement.
When Do Dogs Laugh?
- When negotiating play with another dog
When dogs encounter a potential play partner, they will perform behaviors to communicate that they are not a threat and can be trusted to play with. Research by Bekoff and Allen (1998) suggests that dogs will use play-pants to help negotiate play with another dog. If both dogs show pro-social behaviors and are in agreement, then they may advance and engage in play.
- During play with another dog
Dogs may make a variety of vocalizations when playing with another dog. These can include growling, whining, barking, and play-panting. What is special about the play-pant is that out of all of these vocalizations, it is the only one that doesn’t occur during aggressive interactions. Dogs will use play-pant vocalizations to communicate to the other dog that they are enjoying the play session and would like to continue. By checking-in often with their play partner, dogs can prevent play from getting too rough and from escalating into aggression.
- When playing with their human
One of the great things about dogs is they will extend these forms of communication to humans as well! Dogs may play-pant at us to try to get us to play with them. They may do this on their own, or they may pair it with other play behaviors such as the play bow to signal that they are ready to play. They will also use play pants during play, along with growls, barks, and whines to verbally communicate their excitement of playing with their human friend.
- When being tickled or receiving belly rubs
You may also notice your dog play-panting while being tickled or when receiving belly rubs. This is their way of communicating their happiness and excitement from receiving attention from someone they love and trust. Don’t be surprised if your tickled dog starts running around and bounce with excitement because they probably viewed your behaviors as asking to initiate play.
- When playing alone
Similar to humans, dogs may laugh when they are alone and experience something funny or joyous. Dogs have been recorded play-panting while tossing around a toy by themselves. These vocalizations might accompany trotting around with their toy, shaking their toy, or tossing their toy into the air. Dogs can find great humor and enjoyment goofing off by themselves, and therefore it is not surprising that they would emit these laugh vocalizations associated with pleasure.
What Research Has Been Done To Show That Dogs Laugh?
Research into dog laughter has been slow to develop due to it being a somewhat taboo topic. Many researchers consider dog laughter to be too anthropomorphic to warrant scientific study. The idea that dogs perform the equivalent to a human laugh to express their happiness has been suggested by noteworthy researchers in the past such as Charles Darwin and Konrad Lorenz, however it wasn’t until Patricia Simonet began formally exploring this concept that scientific communities have begun shifting their perspective. Simonet and colleagues have explored the potential use of recorded dog laughter to calm dogs in stressful situations, such as being housed in a shelter. Their research group concluded that hearing the sound of laughter from other dogs reduced stress related aggression in shelter dogs. This is great news for shelters since recorded dog laughter is a simple mechanism that can reduce the amount of time dogs have to stay in shelters because calm and happy dogs are more likely to find forever homes. Simonet and colleagues (2001) have also explored dog laughter in how it relates to play behavior and they continue to explore laughter in other animal species (Simonet, 2004).
How Do You Make Your Dog Laugh?
The easiest way to experience your dog laughing is to initiate play with them. You know your dog and their play style best, so use what works for them. Find their favorite toy and engage with them in a friendly matter. Some dogs like more physical, wrestling type play. That can work too! One simple way humans can communicate that they want to play with a dog is by performing what is called a ‘play bow’. This is done by getting down on all fours and lowering our head and front part of our body towards the ground in a sort of a bow. Dogs will likely reciprocate the play bow and may laugh! Listen carefully for short panting like noises that are used concurrently with other play body language.
Mimicking the play pant sound is another method that we can use to trigger our dogs to laugh. A study conducted by Rooney et al. (2001) found that humans could initiate play by whispering to their dogs. Researchers think this could possibly be due to the fact that whispering is close to the frequency of dog play pants. We can also try to recreate the play-pant sound ourselves by forcibly exhaling with an open mouth is rapid succession. This sound should be breathy, with no actual vocalization occurring. If done properly, this breathy sound will invite your dog to play with you and if you’re lucky, your dog will laugh right along with you!
What Are Other Signs That Show Your Dog Is Having A Good Time?
Laughing is one sign that your dog is having a good time, but there are countless other behaviors and vocalizations that they will use to show you that they’re happy. During play, dogs may growl, bark, or whine to voice their excitement. As long as these vocalizations are accompanied by relaxed body language they can be viewed as positive sounds. When dogs are playing, it’s common for them to put on a ‘play-face’ to show that they are in play mode and have no aggressive intent. The play-face is a loose, open mouth smile with relaxed eyes and general appearance. Another very common form of communication dogs use to show they want to initiate or are enjoying play is the play-bow. During play or when your dog is generally happy, they may move with a wiggly body. Some breeds with little or no tails with shake their rump to display their excitement. Finally, certain tail wags are a great visual that dogs use to show they’re feeling good. Studies have shown that the position of the tail during the wag can tell you a lot about your dog’s emotional state. One study by Quaranta et al. (2007) found that relaxed tail wagging towards the right side of the dog is associated with dogs feeling positive, happy emotions.
The social bond between humans and dogs is truly unique. The amount of joy and happiness that dogs can bring to our lives and vice versa is amazing. Advancing research into dog laughter continues to prove how special our relationships with our dogs are. Hopefully the information in this article will allow you to share some laughs with you own dog.
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