A friend was visiting my home and while I was preparing us some cold drinks I casually tossed an ice cube to my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley. He likes to crunch on ice so he immediately dashed across the bare wood floor to grab his cold treat. Unfortunately, he overran his target, and his paw hit the ice cube sending it skittering across the floor. He chased after it and turned to grab it but again his paw hit it first, moving it in a new direction and sending him racing to the other side of the room in pursuit. It took about 15 to 20 seconds of charging around the room for him to capture his prize, however that was enough to provoke some loud laughs from both my guest and me. My friend turned to me and asked, "So you keep a dog around to serve in the role of court jester? Do you think a cat would work as well?"
Laughter is a very important part of human social interactions. Research shows that we mostly laugh when there are other individuals around, and seldom when we are alone. Because we tend to treat dogs (and cats) as companions they can provoke laughter in us. Think of it this way, if people talk with their pets why wouldn't they laugh with them too? Clinical psychologists have done research which shows that laughter can reduce stress, thus providing a psychological healing effect on people. Clinical research has shown that if you can get people to laugh more often it greatly improves how they perceive their quality of life. This makes laughter a valuable commodity. There have been a couple of studies that have looked at whether our pets have an effect on how often we laugh. These studies haven't been conducted on a large-scale, but they have provided some interesting data.
The first of these was by Robin Maria Valeri of the Department of Psychology at St. Bonaventure University in New York State. The study appeared in the journal Society and Animals*. This small study (aptly titled Tails of Laughter) looked at groups of people who owned dogs, cats, both dogs and cats, or no companion animal at all. The participants in this study were told that the survey was designed to explore how frequently people laughed and what made them laugh. For one day each participant was required to carry around a "laughter log" and record all incidences (a) in which they laughed, (b) what made them laugh, (c) how hard they laughed, and (d) who was present. Noting all of those details each time you chuckle is probably enough to take the fun out of a good laugh, however this set of volunteers persevered.
The first, and perhaps most important, result was that overall pet owners tend to laugh more frequently than individuals who are not living with companion animals. However when we break down who was laughing, there was a bit of a surprise. Given the number of funny cat videos that one finds on YouTube one would expect that it would be the cat owners who were giggling most frequently. This, however, is not the case. Dog owners, and people who own both cats and dogs, tend to laugh most often, with cat owners getting the fewest chuckles from their pets.
So what is it that dogs are doing which makes us laugh? In a report published in the journal Anthrozoos**, Robert Mitchell and Kristi Sinkhorn of the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University attempted to shed some light on the phenomenon. They videotaped people playing with their dogs or with unfamiliar dogs and tried to determine what was happening during these sessions that evoked laughter. They found that the most common thing which provoked chuckles in people was when they saw the dog failing at some aspect of the play, such as missing a ball which was thrown for him and so forth. This was exactly the kind of situation which provoked laughter from my friend and I while watching my dog chase down the ice cube. Ranked second in laughter production was when the dog did something which had not been anticipated (like jumping on a ball instead of trying to retrieve it) or when they acted in an exaggerated way (like trying to retrieve several objects all at the same time). Just as an aside, the researchers found that women are more likely to laugh at their dogs than are men (although women tend to laugh more overall when men are around).
These researchers summarize their results by saying "Our laughter means dogs are social partners. We laugh with dogs to share our amused recognition of social incongruities or shifting frames. We laugh with (or at) dogs when they do what they are not expected or supposed to do, and don’t do what they are expected or supposed to."
While these are relatively small studies they do help to shed some light on our relationships with our dogs. However many questions remain. What dogs make of our laughter, if anything, remains a mystery even though research shows that dogs also laugh (click here to read about that).
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission
* Robin MariaValeri, (2006). Tails of laughter: A pilot study examining the relationship between companion animal guardianship (pet ownership) and laughter. Society & Animals 14: 275–293.
** Robert Mitchell and Kristi Sinkhorn (2014). Why Do People Laugh during Dog–Human Play Interactions? Anthrozoos, 27: 235 - 250