Laughing seems to help us to connect and bond with others. It causes our bodies to release “feel-good” neurotransmitters called endorphins, which is why laughing can also lift our moods and spirits. Laughter is one of the elements that many scientists once believed made us uniquely human. However, new research shows that other animals are not quite as different from us as we once thought.
In fact, it turns out that we are not the only mammals out there that can laugh! Primates like chimpanzees, for example, exhibit guttural grunting and chuckling when they play, although it is much breathier than the laughter of humans. But what about our favorite canine companions–do they laugh too?
We now know that dogs are extremely emotional creatures and are big fans of play and intimate connection, both with other dogs as well as humans. But can dogs laugh? Keep reading to find out!
Two Types of Laughter
You’ve probably noticed that people have different kinds of laughs and may laugh in many different situations. You might laugh when you are embarrassed, or you might laugh because you heard something funny. Many people “social laugh” when they hear others laughing in a group, even if they are not sure what the group is laughing about. People often laugh when they are physically tickled as well.
In general, we can sum up the different types of laughter into two main categories: complex social laughter, and physical stimulation laughter. With complex social laughter, we know and understand the context (something is funny, the group is laughing, someone told an inside joke, etc.). Physically stimulated laughter, on the other hand, does not require a sense of humor at all. Instead, it is a response to physical stimulation, such as being tickled.
Animals and Humor
Although they may not always “laugh out loud,” there are countless examples that show many mammals can most definitely understand humor. The famous gorilla Koko, for example, was known for making jokes and apparently enjoyed seeing what kind of reactions her jokes would get. Crows are also notorious for playing pranks on one another, as well as on other species. And ravens actually make friends with wolves and enjoy teasing them and pulling their tails!
So, we know that mammals love to play, but can they laugh? Neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panskeep was studying emotions and emotional responses in the brains of rats when he accidentally stumbled upon the answer.
Dr. Panskeep found that rats make a high-pitched chirping sound when they play. This chirping sound was around fifty kilohertz, which is the same ultrasonic frequency they use when they communicate with one another. Fascinated by this discovery, Dr. Panksepp wanted to further understand this response, so he stimulated the rats’ brains with electricity, gave them opiates, and tickled the rats’ necks (which is what rats do to one another when they want to play).
In each case, the rats would chirp—just like how humans laugh! What was truly astounding, however, is that the rats began to look for their human caretakers for play and tickles!
Recently, researchers at UCLA discovered that rats and chimpanzees are not the only animal species that can laugh. In fact, at least 65 different animal species can laugh, including foxes, cows, mongooses, dolphins, and even some birds, like magpies and parakeets! But what about dogs?
Can Dogs Laugh?
Yes! Dogs can laugh! Much like a chimpanzee, a dog’s laughter is more of a breathy, forceful panting sound that researchers call a “play pant.”
Patricia Simonet, a cognitive ethologist, recorded some of this play panting laughter among dogs who were wrestling and playing together. She later played her recording of the “dog laughter” at an animal shelter. Shockingly, the dogs inside the shelter stopped their usually anxious barking in under a minute! They replicated this study several times, and each time the dogs experienced reduced stress, and many even wagged their tails and did play-bows.
Why Do Dogs Laugh?
According to Dr. Panksepp, “Play in any species can increase social intelligence.” This would make sense, since dogs not only come from the pack-oriented ancestry of wolves but have evolved right alongside humans and continue to live and work closely with us. Laughing for dogs, then, may help in forming social bonds, just like it does in humans.
In his book, Man Meets Dog, researcher Konrad Lorenz explains that when dogs invite another dog (or even a human) to play, they often use play panting, in addition to pawing, jumping, and play bows.
So, what does a “play pant” look and sound like? According to Lorenz, “When this expressive movement is clearly marked, an invitation to play always follows; here the slightly opened jaws which reveal the tongue, and the tilted angles of the mouth which stretches almost from ear to ear give a still stronger impression of laughing. This ‘laughing’ is most often seen in dogs playing with an adored master and which become so excited that they soon start panting.”
According to researchers, you can try mimicking dog laughter with your own dog at home! Make a round shape with your mouth and try making a “huh” sound and a “hah” sound—but don’t use any vocal noise, just breath. Research has shown that if you can do it right, your dog will respond by wagging their tail, laughing back, sitting up, and/or coming to you.
Do Dogs Understand Human Laughter?
Evolving alongside humans, dogs have become extremely attuned to our emotions. In fact, research shows that domestic dogs often yawn in response to a human yawn and they avoid humans who are angry. Dogs even exhibit left gaze bias, just like humans do!
So, dogs can laugh, but can they understand human laughter? Yes! They even appear to respond positively to it. You might have noticed that your own dog gets excited and wants to play when she sees you laugh and get excited.
Dogs can interpret our smiles and laughter as positive experiences—of course, whether they understand why we are laughing is something yet to be discovered. What we do know, however, is that yes, dogs can laugh!
- 10 Animals That Laugh
- Top 10 Happiest Animals on Earth
- Can Dogs Tell When You’re Sad?
- 5 Reasons Dogs ‘Smile’ and What They’re Communicating
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- Research Gate, Available here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6444281_Neuroevolutionary_sources_of_laughter_and_social_joy_Modeling_primal_human_laughter_in_laboratory_rats
- Psychology Today, Available here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/laughter
- Springer, Available here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-008-0199-3
- Slate, Available here: https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html
- Koko, Available here: https://www.koko.org/uncategorized/14312/kokos-sense-of-humor/