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Mischief, Mayhem, and a Dog with a Sense of Humor

A case study of a dog with a playful sense of humor.

I was recently at an outdoor social gathering where the hosts' young Siberian Husky was wandering around. She approached the group I was talking with, did a little spin followed by a play bow and a breathy, "Woof!" One of the women smiled at this and then said to me, "I have always wondered about whether dogs have a sense of humor."

I began by explaining to her that from researchers' point of view, the situation is complicated. The idea of a "sense of humor" gets tied up with the idea of playfulness and sociability. Often, dogs who are simply unpredictable, or surround themselves with a sort of barely controlled chaos, are credited with having a sense of humor. Nonetheless, based on some of the available research and my own observations, I certainly think that some types of dogs really do have a playful sense of humor.

I believe that the breeds which fit in this category would definitely include some of the terriers, like the Airedale, Cairn, West Highland White, and Sealyham, all of which seem to have a desire to create mischief, and seem to delight in the effects that it produces. This makes them a joy to people who can handle the occasional bouts of mayhem but makes these dogs an exasperation to those who cannot.

I told her, "Although this won't be as data-bound as a controlled study, let me give you a case history. Of course, you must understand that whether a sense of humor shows up often requires the interaction with another individual, someone who might ultimately prove to be the target of playful teasing."

I went on to reminisce about the dog in my life, who I think had the greatest sense of humor of any dog that I have owned. Although, part of the manifestation of his mischievous sense of play probably had to do with his interactions with my beloved wife.

Flint was supposed to be a Christmas present. For the first time in my life, I found myself without a dog, and my wife Joan knew that I would go crazy if I didn't get one soon. She also knew that I had set my mind on a Cairn Terrier. When I found a breeder who had a line of dogs that I really liked, Joan announced that she was giving me a puppy from their most recent litter as a Christmas gift.

The puppy would eventually grow up to become the number one Cairn Terrier in obedience competition in Canada up to that time. He would also grow up to delight me with his impish behavior, while at the same time becoming the bane of my wife's existence. On this day, however, Joan smiled and held him, and we had a family picture taken under the Christmas tree with the puppy. The very next year, my wife bought me a 12-gauge shotgun as a Christmas present. There are many members of our family who feel that those two gifts were not unrelated.

Flint's playful unpredictability was a continuous source of annoyance to Joan. She was a prairie girl who grew up in Alberta, Canada in a family that kept large sporting dogs, mostly retrievers, pointers and hounds. These were working dogs that had their own insulated doghouse next to the back door. They were allowed into the house only when they were fed or when the temperature dropped low enough so that everyone in the family began feeling guilty about their welfare. These dogs were also trained to pay attention, to do what they were told to do and to work silently. Quiet, order, reliability, predictability, and unobtrusiveness are values that Joan cherishes in her own life and also demands from her dogs.

A terrier as a house dog was something completely beyond her experience. Joan had never encountered the likes of this kind of dog before and was completely unprepared for it. She did not understand the fun of the game "Imaginary Burglar," which Flint played with great vigor at 2 a.m. on random evenings. On such nights, he would jump up onto the bed with a furious explosive round of barking that would awaken the house. The triggering event could usually be traced to something like the wind brushing some tree branches against the house, or a car door slamming or maybe a cat yowling several city blocks away.

To keep her from disemboweling him at such a moment, I explained to her that terriers are specifically bred to bark and it is the sound of the barking underground which tells the hunters where to dig to uncover the fox or badger. I even went so far as to buy Flint a silly little doggy cap which had the motto "Born to Bark" embroidered on it, to remind her of this, but Joan was not amused.

"Why didn't you tell me all this before we got him?" she grumbled and then wandered off muttering about "nice quiet dogs, like golden retrievers and labs," and musing loudly to herself, "I suppose that Flint wants me to believe that there is a badger under the bed or something."

Flint had a mind of his own, and his likes and dislikes often clashed with Joan's preferred lifestyle. 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 took this as an opportunity to do something humorous. 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 the dismay of my wife.

Flint and Joan almost reached an accord at one time. In the genes of every terrier is the ability and desire to eliminate rats and other vermin. While cats are certainly more efficient at killing mice, where stealth and patience are most the most important qualities for the hunt, rats are often too large and vicious for some cats to handle, hence terriers were bred for the job. Flint proved to be quite an efficient "varmiting" dog, eliminating many rats, mice, moles, gophers, and even an opossum, mostly at our little farm where I sometimes go to hide and write.

Flint's ability to hunt rodents did endear him, for a while at least, with my wife. In the city, we live in an old house, which is not quite sealed as well as it should be, especially around the basement area. Each winter, mice seem to find a way to work themselves inside. Flint turned out to be of great assistance with this problem, hunting rodents the way that terriers were bred to do and with a degree of patience and dedication that would make cat owners envious. He turned into a fabulous biological mousetrap.

Joan truly dislikes having mice around because of the mess that they make and their destructiveness around paper or cloth materials. Because of this, she was quite pleased with Flint's proficiency.

Typically, when he would kill a mouse, he would leave it on the floor where it fell. When Joan noticed, she would gladly dispose of the small carcass and encourage Flint to keep up the good work. She would warmly praise him for his efforts, giving him a friendly pat and maybe even a treat.

Perhaps Flint saw this as his opportunity to make amends with that other human that he lived with, or perhaps he just reverted to being a terrier with a sense of humor. In any event, one morning Flint decided to make his peace offering to Joan. It was quite early, and Joan awakened to the gentle pressure of Flint's front paws resting on her.

She looked down at him only to find that he had deposited a mouse on her chest — still warm, but quite dead. I fear that the gift was not accepted in the tender and accommodating spirit with which it was offered. She jumped up with a startled shriek and Flint began to dance happily around. He now knew that he had done something truly great, grand, and certainly humorous, since it was now causing such an interesting commotion on her side of the bed and such convulsive laughter on my side.

As with many terriers, Flint's motto in life was, "If two wrongs don't make a right, try three."

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission


Coren, S. (2010) Born to Bark: My Adventures with an Irrepressible and Unforgettable Dog. New York: Free Press (pp. 1-320).

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