For Dogs Fun is the X-Factor

From Making Dogs Happy
By Melissa Starling PhD, Paul McGreevy PhD, MRCVS, October 2019
make dogs happy
Note: In this new guidebook to happy dogs, co-authors Melissa Starling and Paul McGreevy, both of whom are PhD behaviorists, reveal how dogs think, what they do (and don’t) want, and how best to obtain “good dog” behavior from our pups. They do this in an engaging yet erudite manner (not easy to achieve) packaged in a very attractive volume full of instructive and illuminating photos. The following excerpt is a fine example of their straightforward style of communication.


Humans value fun enormously, and it seems we are not the only ones. Fun is hard to define. While the dictionary simplifies it to enjoyment and amusement, the connotations are of playfulness and even purity of purpose. Fun is smiles and laughter, games and play. Dogs are undeniably a playful species. Unlike their ancestral counterparts, they play well into old age and many are not fussy about who they play with. Play is considered one of the few activities to be reliably and universally associated with a positive emotional state, so it is unsurprising that it can be a powerful reward for dogs; one they might prefer even over food. Yet, play is a concept that defies definition. It might be best defined by the emotional state of the performer.


Humans are not always good at identifying whether a dog is having fun or not, but there are signs that can be revealing. For example, a dog that keeps returning to an activity that is energetically costly with no obvious payoffs, such as jumping on a bed or trampoline, running through piles of leaves, bounding through tall grass, or running ahead when they have guessed where the group is going, is showing that this activity is valuable to them. If no other reward is evident, other than the activity itself, then we must assume the dog finds the activity rewarding. A good example of activities with inbuilt rewards can be seen in herding dogs—they work for us not because they share our goal of moving livestock down a hillside and into a pen but because the very act of herding is rewarding in itself.


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Some activities require effort to commence, such as climbing up a sand dune or a slide in a playground only to turn around and run, jump, or slide back down again. How instantaneously the dog dives into his descent and gets his payoff can give us a clue as to how deliberate and preplanned the action is. The dog might also indicate his enjoyment of an activity through his body language.

Playful body language includes exaggerated movements of the head and limbs, unnecessarily energetic leaps and bounds, vocalizations such as barking and growling and, usually, a softness and looseness in the face and throughout the body. Dogs might have different preferences when it comes to playful signals. And dogs of different breeds have preferred play styles. For Paul, this was confirmed the first time he witnessed Bundy encountering a fellow Labrador retriever. The play bows, body wriggles, and hindquarter bounces were articulated in fluent Labradorese. Kivi is one for tossing his head like a pony and running in big, exaggerated bounds, or flopping abruptly on the ground and barking until someone comes over to tickle or climb on him or (Erik!) bite his genitals. Erik is more intense and uses little growls and barks, but his tail wags are loose and his ears not as erect and forward-pointing as they would be if he were threatening another dog. To invite play, Bundy cavorts with his tail held almost as if it is chasing him. Meanwhile, Nev will ostentatiously pick up oversized sticks, logs and even branches as if they are the most prized of all possessions only to then deliberately drop them in the path of other dogs. The muscles that move his lips and muzzle are also more relaxed, and when he makes contact with another dog he turns to one side at the last moment so that contact is largely made with the “safe” parts of his body, including his flanks, hindquarters, or shoulders.

A sense of humor?

It has not officially been established if dogs have a sense of humor, but they do use a vocalization that has been dubbed a “dog laugh.” It has attracted this beguiling label because it occurs exclusively during play or friendly greetings. The dog laugh sounds like a breathy, forced exhalation and dogs usually respond to it with playful behavior and sometimes their own dog laugh. It has recently been reported that playbacks of the dog laugh reduce signs of stress and increase social approach behaviors in shelter dogs. A human whispering to a dog, especially in an excited manner, can produce a similar response, so it’s possible that dogs interpret pronounced, breathy exhalations from humans as a dog laugh. Before you try this yourself with the next dog you encounter, it pays to be aware that breathing (or whistling) very close to a dog’s face can annoy it.

If dogs did have a sense of humor, what kinds of things might they find funny? Perhaps looking at what makes human babies laugh can provide some ideas. Babies seem to be amused by nice, safe surprises, such as an object suddenly moving, disappearing and reappearing, making an interesting sound, or changing shape. Dogs find many surprises frightening, but surprises that are quite obviously safe tend to elicit playful body language. It is critical to ask the dog in front of you what they like, and that means looking for signs of conflict, which will be covered later in the book, and giving the dog many opportunities to end the interaction or retreat.

It is important to note that “fun” is not always just the activity itself. Dogs who typically lose games of possession often become less interested in those kinds of games and can take months to recover their confidence after a series of defeats. They might also become less interested in competing in other scenarios. Likewise, dogs that are bullied during play can become withdrawn around other dogs and even start to become aggressive towards them. When the fun goes out of an activity it can discourage dogs from seeking fun in places where they have found it before, and discourage them from seeking rewards in general. This risk aversion—unwillingness to take risks—can be a manifestation of pessimism.

Evidence shows that animals kept in environments with few opportunities for enjoyable activities (often called “enrichment”) seem to expect fewer positive outcomes for themselves and more negative outcomes. Dogs that are reluctant to take risks might not find the sources of joy and reward that an optimistic, risk-taking dog can find. The less they find and acquire these rewards and positive experiences, the less they expect to find them, and the more risk averse they can become. Risk-averse dogs can be easy to live with in some ways—not as prone to look for fun and mischief— but training them might be a challenge if they are unwilling to try new behaviors. In contrast, an optimistic dog that expects more positive outcomes might be inclined to risk venturing further or tackling an obstacle to see what the environment has to offer. This can produce a dog who takes some work to manage off leash but is likely to be relaxed about offering new behaviors and exploring novel activities and environments. This is a dog that is easy to train and resilient to whatever life might throw at them; a dog that finds joy wherever it is available.

What’s Fun For Some is Not Necessarily Fun For All

Melissa occasionally takes her dogs along a walking trail with a very steep, narrow, somewhat rocky section. We can only guess how this idea coalesced, but one day Erik suddenly got busy attacking Kivi’s legs and trying to push him down the steep trail. Kivi lost his footing and rolled over and over, out of control, for about 33 feet (10 m) before he regained his feet. Apparently this tickled Erik, because he quickly developed a strategy that could topple Kivi in moments on that steep trail. The length of time between visits allowed Melissa to forget what had happened the previous time, but Erik did not. Every time he started down the trail, he would dart in and expertly attack Kivi’s balance. Down Kivi would go, and Erik would stand there, watching him roll, and then run after him to try to do it again. Needless to say, Melissa eventually caught on and put a stop to this for Kivi’s well-being and safety, but it remains a good example of what might be considered fun for a dog—probably the same kind of rough-house nonsense that is fun for young children. Like young children, dogs can also lack the mental ability to appreciate that fun with a friend requires both parties to be enjoying themselves, or that a fun activity could be dangerous.

Excerpted from Making Dogs Happy: A Guide to how They Think, What They Do (and Don’t) Want, Getting to ‘Good Dog’ Behavior © Melissa Starling and Paul McGreevy, 2018, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 99: Fall 2019

Photo by Cath Muscat

Melissa Starling, PhD,holds a BSc (Hons) in zoology and a PhD on dog behaviour, personality, emotions and cognition. She is an expert in dog behavior, personality, emotion and cognition, who works as a dog trainer and behaviorist in Syndey, Australia.

Paul McGreevy is a professor of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science, University of Sydney