By Jon Zeller | May 16, 2024

Anyone with a dog knows that dogs are funny. The question is: “funny how?” On one hand, to continue the reference to a certain 1990s gangster movie, they do amuse you—dogs’ antics often make us laugh. But do dogs have a sense of humor? Do they perceive things as funny? This is more complicated, but we tried to figure it out.

A dog playing with a rubber chicken.

Why are some things funny? One explanation is the “Benign Violation Theory”

Even for people, it can be hard to pin down what makes something funny. Many of us disagree on the matter, and almost everyone has experienced finding a joke or situation hilarious while someone they know stares back stone-faced or even angry.

Having said that, some academics have tried to explain what makes things funny. One theory of humor is the “Benign Violation Theory,” developed by Dr. Peter McGraw and Dr. Caleb Warren. As they explain on the website of their Humor Research Lab (HuRL), the theory is that: “Humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. For example, play fighting and tickling, which produce laughter in humans (and other primates), are benign violations because they are physically threatening but harmless attacks.” In humans, this extends to jokes, sketches, and other vehicles for humor that might not seem funny if we took them seriously—but that many of us find amusing when we understand that they’re not real.

This is far from the only way academics, comedians, or others have tried to explain what’s funny, and we don’t think it covers every single amusing thing. Other experts have discussed humor as a way to release tension, for example. Some people even laugh when confronted with actual tragedy; ‘90s kids may remember Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies singing “I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral.” But the Benign Violation Theory is one popular way to look at humor, and it does translate nicely to our canine friends.

Look at joking as a way of playing

In the introduction to his 1993 book SeinLangauge, which was mostly made up of jokes from his standup, Jerry Seinfeld wrote, “A lot of people have this little corner of their brain that wants to play all the time.” 

Sometimes a person who’s joking will even say: “I’m playing with you.”

If you consider joking a form of play, then it would make sense that animals, including dogs, can do it. Dr. Stanley Coren has drawn the connection between humor and play. In a 2015 Psychology Today article, he wrote: “I have often been asked whether dogs have a sense of humor. I think that some do. In my experience, some breeds of dogs, like Airedales, cairn terriers, and Irish setters, seem to view life as if it were a giant stage in which they can engage in play of all sorts—some of which includes pranks of various types, which they use to target their human and canine housemates.”

Just like you might laugh at what another person says in part because you know they don’t mean it, dogs can enjoy play that might look like fighting to an outside observer who’s not paying close attention.

“I’ve seen this in dog parks,” says ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, about when dogs’ play looks like fighting to outsiders. “People say, ‘Oh my God, look how rough they’re playing—break them up!’ And I tell them, ‘No, they’re fine.’”

Two big dogs on the grass.

Canine senses of humor may vary

When it comes to dogs taking each others’ play as nonthreatening, familiarity and chemistry matter. In the same way that humans with different sensibilities could end up with hurt feelings if one jokes and the other takes it seriously, dogs with different play styles might not get along—whereas those who are well-matched may put up with a lot from one another.

“I think what we’re talking about now,” says Dr. Bekoff, “is idiosyncrasies not only in individual personalities, but how they interact in a pair.”

If dogs seem to play “rough,” but they are happy and know each other, it might be fine. But dogs shouldn’t be forced to put up with interactions that are unpleasant for them. If one dog finds another’s play style too vigorous, they should be free to walk away and do something that’s more fun for them.

Dr. Bekoff talks about one of his good friends whose sense of humor differs from his. “I’ve known her for decades,” he says, “and still… Sometimes I’ll say something, and she’ll look at me, and I’ll just say, ‘Oh I was only kidding’…she takes things literally.” 

Similarly, he says, in play there may be dogs who take situations literally—instead of reading certain actions as play, they take them as real threats. “It gets back down to something that I say ad nauseam,” he says. “It just depends on the relationship between the two dogs: who they are as individuals, and who they are in relationship to one another.”

Like people, dogs are sometimes “kidding”

With the caveat that dogs can understand spoken words from humans—some of them can understand a large number of them—and have proven capable of a limited kind of “reading” and, in at least one case, even typing, it’s fair to make the statement that they’re not generally known for their mastery of spoken language. This is one of many reasons that we’re not about to see a standup special by a clever Jack Russell terrier.

However, dogs can still be “kidding.” While they can’t play verbal games like people can, dogs can signal to each other that an interaction is not to be taken at face value. They have different ways of doing this. Among them: play bows and even a sound that some humans say is a type of laughter.

Smell is a very important sense for dogs—more so than for people—and Dr. Bekoff believes it’s possible that odors play a role in dogs’ understanding when other dogs’ behavior is meant seriously or as play. He says he’d like to see research studying whether dogs—like other animals, such as bank voles—emit pheromones offering clues about their intent. Such scents would make it easier for dogs to read each other quickly.

A golden retriever rolling around on the grass.

Laugh track… for dogs

While the “laugh track”—the sound of recorded laughter often added to TV sitcoms to supplement or simulate a studio-audience reaction—can be controversial, it would seem that dogs like their version.

As we mentioned before, dogs make a sound that some people interpret as a type of laughter; it comes out during and to initiate play, and is different from barking and growling. Like human laughter, it involves exhalation. Dr. Bekoff likes using the word “laughter” to describe the sound, “because it’s easier for humans to understand.”

A 2005 study found that shelter dogs who heard recordings of this “dog laughter” showed fewer signs of stress than those who didn’t, and even ended up having shorter stays at the shelter. This could be because the sound reminded dogs of pleasant experiences, like play.

Can dogs be pranksters?

Some people who have worked and lived with dogs believe that they take joy in fooling humans and other animals. This is not a new idea—Charles Darwin famously wrote that “Dogs show what may be fairly called a sense of humor, as distinct from mere play; if a bit of stick or other such object be thrown to one, he will often carry it away for a short distance; and then squatting down with it on the ground close before him, will wait until his master comes quite close to take it away. The dog will then seize it and rush away in triumph, repeating the same maneuver, and evidently enjoying the practical joke.”

Dogs have long been documented fooling humans and each other, and they have a theory of mind. For example, they’ve been known to distract other dogs so that they can steal their food. But fooling someone to get a snack from them isn’t the same as pranking them, and it can be hard to figure out what’s motivating a dog’s behavior.

In another Psychology Today article, Dr. Coren recounted a story about one of his terriers, Flint, pulling what he perceived as a prank on his wife—who was often annoyed by Flint’s antics, but praised him when he killed mice around the house. “One morning,” Dr. Coren wrote, “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.”

We can’t know that Flint was pulling a prank on one of his humans—there are many other plausible explanations for his behavior, including that he wanted to please her by delivering a dead mouse. Dr. Coren acknowledges this, too. But we can’t rule out that Flint may have savored the humor of the situation.

So… do dogs find things funny?

Dr. Bekoff says that attention is one explanation for dogs’ sometimes-silly behavior. He recalls how one of his dogs, Jethro, would like to run around with a toy when there were guests in the house. “I don’t know what’s going on in his dog brain,” he says, “but maybe he’s saying, ‘Wow, I got their attention, and I like getting attention…’ Or I suppose he could say, ‘I’m making them happy, so I’ll keep doing this.’ And we do this with kids. You know, you do things that are really goofy because the kid giggles.”

Positive external feedback is one reason that humans keep joking with each other, but it’s not the only one. There’s also a pleasurable feeling that something is funny, independent of others’ reactions. And Dr. Bekoff doesn’t reject the notion that Jethro was tickled by certain situations. Discussing Jethro’s ability to manipulate his person’s behavior, faking him into walking to the front door, he says, “I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that Jethro is going, ‘I can’t believe it—every time I go to the front door, Marc gets up and goes to the front door to see if someone’s there!’”

“Sense of humor” refers to an internal perception, and we can’t know for sure what dogs are thinking. But Dr. Bekoff finds it plausible that they could find situations amusing in their own way.

“When you think of the evolution of social living,” says Dr. Bekoff, “there’s no reason why we wouldn’t consider the possibility that dogs and other animals have these cognitive and emotional capacities to play games, or to joke around, or have a sense of humor to ‘lighten the load.’”