Canine Humor: Can dogs laugh?

All dog owners want their dogs to enjoy life, but how can we tell if they are happy? In humans, laughing and smiling are sure signs that we are enjoying ourselves, but is the same true for dogs? 

Do dogs laugh? Can dogs smile when they are having fun? In this article we will answer all your questions and explore the signs of happiness in dogs, as well as what really makes dogs happy.

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Can dogs laugh?

Dogs don’t laugh in the same way humans do, but many pet parents will tell you that their dogs laugh in their own way, usually when playing. Rather than vocal laughter, dogs often use a certain type of panting (known as play-panting) to encourage other dogs or humans to play with them. 

This panting certainly has elements of human laughter– the mouth is open wide and extends towards each ear, often with teeth exposed. The dog may make loud ‘huffing’ noises at the beginning of the game, then they start to pant with excitement and physical exertion. 

The rhythmic expiration combined with the smiley, relaxed facial expression can give the impression that the dog is laughing. We don’t think this is true laughing as you would see in humans, however, it is certainly a sign of a happy dog. 

Interestingly, scientists have recorded this ‘play panting’ sound and have found that playing it back can calm other dogs when they are stressed. 

This is certainly a strong indication that it is a sound used for communicating information about the dog’s emotional state, as well as to influence the emotional state and behavior of other dogs.

Can dogs smile?

Smiling as we know it involves the lips being pulled back and slightly upwards to reveal the teeth, along with a relaxed facial expression and slightly narrowed eyes. Humans smile when they are happy, but do dogs smile when they experience positive emotions? 

Dogs certainly show a similar facial expression to smiling when they are happy and relaxed. This ‘doggy smile’ is unmistakable and often involves an open mouth with lips drawn back, narrowed eyes and sometimes gentle panting. 

Whether this dog smile is real is still the topic of debate- some scientists think that our canine companions may have learned to copy our facial expressions to some extent.

It may also be a learned behavior- dogs very quickly learn which behaviors get our attention, and who can resist the adoring gaze of a dog smiling up at you?! 

Some dogs will lift their lips and show their front teeth when they first meet someone or when they are feeling a little unsure about a situation. This is known as a ‘submissive smile’ and it is often shown alongside other submissive body language such as narrowed eyes and head turning. 

Sometimes people mistake a submissive smile for signs of aggression, but in fact this is an indication that the dog is a little worried and is trying to avoid conflict.

If you meet a dog and he shows you a submissive smile, it is best to speak to him quietly and reassuringly, avoid direct eye contact and let him approach you in his own time.

Do dogs have lips?

When humans laugh, our lips are drawn back to reveal our teeth. In fact, the position of our lips is often a strong clue as to how we are feeling. But do dogs have lips? If you have a hairy dog, you may have wondered if they actually have lips under all that hair.

Even with short-haired dogs, it can be difficult to tell if they actually have lips. Well, yes dogs do have lips– they are just different to ours. The top lip of a dog is known as a ‘flew’ or ‘maxillary lip’ and the bottom lip is known as the ‘lower lip’ or ‘mandibular lip’. 

Just like human lips, dog lips are used to help keep food and water in the mouth prior to swallowing. Dogs’ lips tend to be black to protect them from sun damage, although this can vary between breeds. 

Dog lips run along the full length of their mouth and the size of their lips vary with the breed of dog (think about the lips of a Saint Bernard!). 

A dog’s lips are used for communication as they can use them to expose or hide their teeth, as well as drawing their lips back into a ‘smile’ or pulling them forward to show that they are unhappy about a situation. 

Dog lips are also extremely mobile and a dog will use his lips to pick up food or other objects and move them around in his mouth. You may have noticed some serrated or bumpy areas on your dog’s lips near his rear teeth.

We don’t yet know what these are for, however, they undoubtedly have a function yet to be discovered. One theory is that they help prevent a dog from biting his own lips when he is chewing.

Do dogs have a sense of humor?

Dog owners will often report that their dog has a sense of humor, but do dogs really find things funny? Dogs are incredibly playful animals and when we are messing around they will often join in with a silly expression on their face. 

They may trick their owners by running off with toys mid-game, making it seem like they do indeed have a sense of humor. The truth is, we don’t know everything about canine emotions. 

Dogs are very sensitive to how their owner is feeling and it makes sense that they would join in when their owner is in a playful mood. They also learn which behaviors make their owner happy, meaning they get more attention and a longer period of interaction. 

Just as there is variation in humans, it is likely that some dogs have more of a ‘sense of humor’ than others. However, a doggy sense of humor is more likely to be a sense of fun, playfulness and mischievousness than understanding jokes and playing tricks.

Are dogs ticklish?

Some humans love being tickled, some not so much. But what about our dogs- can dogs be ticklish? Well, yes they can. Dogs have the same nerve endings in their skin as we do, meaning that they experience similar sensations when touched or tickled.

Just like humans, all dogs will react differently to being tickled. Some really enjoy it, some don’t. Signs that your dog enjoys being tickled include wriggling about with a goofy look on their face, jerking their legs, tilting their head or leaning into you when you tickle the right spot. 

There is also a special type of pleasurable grunting noise that often accompanies this! Where are dogs ticklish? This will vary from dog to dog, but often behind the ears and along the back are good places to start. 

Not all dogs will like being tickled, so go gently to start with. If your dog growls or moves away, this is a sign that he does not enjoy it. It is important to give your dog the choice, so don’t tickle him if he doesn’t like it.

A good sign that your dog enjoys being tickled is if he asks for more when you stop, so gently tickle for a few seconds, then stop and assess his reaction.

How do I know if my dog is happy?

All owners want their dog to be happy, but what makes humans happy isn’t necessarily what pleases dogs. It can take a bit of detective work and careful observation to work out what makes your dog happy. 

Observe his body language in different situations for an insight in to whether he is stressed, just about coping or truly happy.

Signs of a happy dog include:

  • Relaxed body language, along with a gently wagging tail.
  • An open, relaxed mouth, often gently panting.
  • Soft eyes
  • Relaxed ears
  • Running with a ‘bouncy’ gait
  • Soliciting play or other friendly contact with other dogs or humans
  • A good appetite
  • Absence of signs of stress

What makes dogs happy?

Signs of happiness will vary from dog to dog. Some dogs are happy when bouncy and excited, others are happy when they are resting and relaxed. 

An elderly dog may be happy when snoozing in the sun or pottering around the yard, while a younger dog will be at peak happiness when playing with his owner. 

For some dogs, cuddles make them happy, for others it may be a long hike with doggy friends. Knowing your dog is key to assessing his happiness in any situation. 

Things that may make dogs happy include:

  • Snoozing in a comfy bed
  • Getting stuck into a long-lasting chew
  • Tasty treats or a bowl of their favorite dinner
  • Spending time with people and dogs they know and trust
  • Playing with people and/ or other dogs
  • Being stroked, fussed or tickled
  • Going for walks
  • Taking part in doggy sports such as agility
  • Swimming
  • Car rides
  • Being given the chance to sniff things on walks

What makes your dog happy will be influenced by his age, breed, individual personality and life experience. For example, one dog may love car rides but another may find them terrifying if he has had a previous bad experience. 

Some dogs love to play with other dogs that they meet on walks, but if your dog was not socialized well as a puppy, or is particularly sensitive, he might not like to meet new dogs.

It is important to see your dog as an individual, with his own feelings and preferences, and allow him to have choice wherever possible.

Signs of stress in dogs

Equally important is to be able to assess the signs of stress in your dog- if he is stressed then he is certainly not happy. 

Signs of stress in dogs include:

  • Tense body language, moving slowly
  • Hiding away
  • A hard stare when approached, often showing the whites of the eyes
  • Tail tucked between his legs or very slowly wagging
  • Tense facial muscles
  • Ears drawn back or high and alert
  • Panting, not caused by heat or exercise
  • Growling, barking or snapping when approached
    Refusing to eat

Signs of stress might indicate that your dog is stressed by something in his environment, or that he has a medical problem such as pain. Always speak to your vet if you notice changes in your dog’s behavior.

Can dogs laugh – final thoughts

Dogs are incredibly variable when it comes to their personality. Just like humans, different dogs will find different activities enjoyable. 

Some are goofy clowns who love to mess around and make their owners laugh. More sensitive dogs may be more reserved and they will probably enjoy quieter activities and gentle cuddles.

Whether or not dogs actually laugh or have a sense of humor is still up for debate- but maybe we shouldn’t look for human behaviors as signs of happiness in our dogs. 

Canine body language is a far more reliable indicator of dog happiness and contentment. Get to know your dog, observe his body language, work out what makes him happy- and do more of it!

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