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Laughing Dogs
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Dog chase and tag games are engaging —the whirling and dashing are as balanced as a sophisticated ballet sequence, and timing is everything. (Of course, as with any spectacle, we secretly wait for the slapstick moment—a miscalculated leap, for example.)

Secret Number Two: Dogs Have a Sense of Other (Role Reversal)

Dogs understand roles, and reversing roles. For example, dogs can be both the chasee and the chaser, depending on who has the object; sometimes, during tag, no object is necessary. The role reverses with a playful glance over the shoulder. For many researchers, it has been a challenge to find a way by which to investigate selfconsciousness. But I believe the answer to this dilemma is to investigate an animal’s sense of “other,”which is required in order to have a sense of “self.”*

Dogs exhibit this sense of other during play. They understand roles and how they change. For example, dogs switch from chaser to chasee without skipping a step. The chaser will sweep around to the side of the chasee, then move ahead while looking back over his shoulder. With a single glance, the chaser becomes the chasee.

Secret Number Three: A Laughing Dog Calms an Anxious Dog

Earlier, I noted that my research raised a ruckus.When I presented my findings on the meaning of the breathy exhalation, Dr. Janice Willard, a behavioral veterinarian, challenged me to apply the results to something that could help dogs. In 2005, I did just that by designing an experiment that would determine whether or not playing the dog-laughter recording would ameliorate stress-related behavior in shelter dogs.Not only was it successful in doing that, it appeared to have a calming effect on the dogs as well. The dogs exhibited significantly fewer stress-related behaviors such as barking, lunging, cagebiting, tail-chasing and cowering, and a significant increase in pro-social behaviors, including quietly sitting or lying at the front of the kennel.

Initially, I was surprised by this calming effect, because laughter seems to me to be so rousing. However, after reading Jaak Panksepp’s work (Burgdorf, J. & Panksepp, 44 Bark Sept/Oct 2007 J. [2001].Tickling induces reward in adolescent rats, Physiology & Behavior, 72, 167–173), I had a better understanding of the way the dog-laugh could calm. According to Panksepp, during laughter the pleasure center of the brain is activated. Perhaps listening to the sounds of others laughing really does have a healing effect —perhaps listening to other dogs laughing calms our anxious dogs.

While these three secrets by no means constitute a complete list, they illustrate a direction of inquiry into our dogs’ lives. We as dog guardians may have suspected these secrets to be true, but science is finally supporting our affectionate observations. According to recent DNA research by Leonard, Wayne, Wheeler et al., domestic dogs have been sharing the company of humans for thousands of years. During this lengthy common history, dogs and humans have developed mutual communication signals—gaze, touch, smiling and laughter. May we continue our lasting relationship for another 100,000 years, and may our communications continue to deepen.

*Studies have been done on this topic, most recently in 2006, when an Emory University graduate student using Asian elephants as subjects replicated earlier studies and found that his three subjects did indeed recognize themselves in a mirror. (Plotnik, Joshua M., de Waal, Frans B. M., & Reiss, Diana. [2006] Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Published online Oct. 30, 2006; PNAS doi:10.1073/pnas.0608062103.)

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 44: Sep/Oct 2007

Image: Sergio Ruzzier

CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Kim | January 11 2011 |

I've seen dogs smile and I've seen them express what appeared to be great joy, but thus far I don't think I've seen them laugh.
You've given me something to watch for.

I hope I see it, because let's face it, laughing is great fun!

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