I have often been asked whether dogs have a sense of humor? I think that some do. In my experience, some breeds of dogs, like Airedales, Cairn Terriers, and Irish Setters seem to view life as if it were a giant stage in which they can engage in play of all sorts — some of which includes pranks of various types which they use to target their human and canine housemates.
Some dogs seem to go through life with the motto, "It's not worth doing if it doesn't cause a furor!" This makes such dogs a great pleasure for people who can put up with the unpredictability associated with a dog's brand of wittiness, while the same dogs can be the bane of the existence to people who like order and quiet in their life.
The playful, uninhibited nature of dogs generally reflects the fact that dogs have more or less juvenile minds. We have specifically bred them not to fully mature but to maintain a mind that is very similar to those of their wolf puppy forebears for their entire lives. The technical term for this is neoteny. It’s part of what makes dogs unconditionally loving companions who want to frolic and who, like puppies, do silly things that make us laugh.
We tend to equate such playful behaviors with a sense of humor. Certainly, when we are evaluating human beings we would expect a person who is judged as having a “playful” nature to have a sense of humor, and conversely, we would expect a person judged as having “a good sense of humor” to be playful.
Perhaps the first scientist to suggest that dogs have a sense of humor was Charles Darwin. Most people think of him only in terms of his Theory of Evolution, however, as part of his evolutionary studies, he looked at emotions in animals and humans in order to find parallels and similarities. It appeared to Darwin that dogs do have a sense of humor which appears best when they are playing and acts as a sort of emotional add-on to their games.
In the 1872 edition of The Descent of Man, he writes:
Dogs show what may be fairly called a sense of humor, as distinct from mere play; if a bit of stick or other such object be thrown to one, he will often carry it away for a short distance; and then squatting down with it on the ground close before him, will wait until his master comes quite close to take it away. The dog will then seize it and rush away in triumph, repeating the same maneuver, and evidently enjoying the practical joke.
While it might be difficult to determine the sense of humor in any dog or breed of dogs, since we cannot actually enter the mind of the dog to examine its mental state, it certainly is possible to determine how playful a dog is. If playfulness is an indication of a sense of humor, then we could, in effect, rank the various dog breeds in terms of their sense of humor. Not all breeds are created equally; some are definitively more playful than others. Airedales, for example, seem to have a sense of play that they cannot suppress, while Basset Hounds often seem to shun play.
Two animal behaviorists from the University of California-Davis, Dr. Benjamin Hart, and Lynnette Hart, had a group of experts rank 56 different breeds of dogs in terms of playfulness. By "playfulness" they meant things like a willingness to chase balls, Kongs, or Frisbees and to engage in games like hide-and-seek. Unsurprisingly, those that ranked highest included the Irish Setter, English Springer Spaniel, Airedale, Golden Retriever, and Poodle. The Bloodhound, Bulldog and Basset Hound ranked low.
Here are the rankings provided by their experts for 56 different breeds of dogs, starting with the most playful and then moving down the list.
The Most Playful Breeds:
- Irish Setter
- English Springer Spaniel
- Miniature Schnauzer
- Cairn Terrier
- Airedale Terrier
- Standard Poodle
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Golden Retriever
- Australian Shepherd
- Miniature Poodle
- German Short-Haired Pointer
Above Average Playfulness:
- Fox Terrier
- Labrador Retriever
- Boston Terrier
- Yorkshire Terrier
- West Highland White Terrier
- Toy Poodle
- German Shepherd Dog
- Silky Terrier
- Welsh Corgi
- Shih Tzu
- Bichon Frise
- Cocker Spaniel
- Scottish Terrier
- Brittany Spaniel
Below Average Playfulness:
- Norwegian Elkhound
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever
- Siberian Husky
- Afghan Hound
- Lhasa Apso
- Old English Sheepdog
- Great Dane
The Least Playful Breeds:
- Alaskan Malamute
- Saint Bernard
- Basset Hound
- Chow Chow
As many owners will undoubtedly attest, playful dogs can sometimes be a mixed blessing. While they are a joy to people who can handle the occasional bout of chaos, they can exasperate those who cannot.
For example, I once had a Cairn Terrier (Cairns are in the top group in terms of sense of humor and playfulness) and my dog Flint lived up to that reputation. Unfortunately, I am married to a Prairie girl, who became a first-grade schoolteacher, and she prizes order, quiet, and predictability.
Flint had a mind of his own, and his likes and dislikes had nothing to do with my wife Joan's preferred lifestyle. Whenever she would try to control him, he would treat the entire episode as a game, in which he could create a bit of fun. She would shoo him off of a chair only to see him immediately jump up on the sofa. She would push him off of one side of the bed only to have him jump back up on the other side. She would scold him for barking at the door only to have him jump up and begin barking at the window.
One day, she had some friends over for some afternoon coffee. Flint hung around the group, nosing at the visitors to test the possibility that one of them might scratch his ear or perhaps accidentally drop something edible nearby. Joan became concerned that he might be annoying her guests, so she waved him away.
"Flint, stop bothering these people. Go find something interesting to do," she said with a bit of annoyance.
Flint was a clever dog, and he took her at her word. He was always looking for something which would raise the excitement level in the house since he seemed to dote on the confusion and commotion. So this time he dashed out of the room with a definite sense of purpose. A few minutes later, he reappeared carrying one of Joan's undergarments which he proceeded to flagrantly snap from side to side with great joy — to the amusement of her company (and me) and the dismay of my wife.
So the best advice is that if you value peace and quiet, then perhaps something like a Pekingese or a Basset hound who seem to shun play but are happy to snuggle up to you on the sofa is better than a Cairn Terrier or an Irish Setter who will try everything to get you up and aroused because of their need to play and their sense of fun.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books, including The Wisdom of Dogs.
Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.
Hart BL & Hart LA (1988) The perfect puppy. New York: Freeman.