Thank you so much for having me on To Read or Not To Read!
My latest book is about dogs, so you’ll have to forgive me if my mind keeps reverting to all things canine. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about dogs and their sense of humor. A year ago, if you’d asked me whether dogs laugh, I’d have said absolutely.
I’ve seen our dog Kota—mouth open in a joyful pant, mischievous gleam in her eye—give what is clearly a silent chuckle at the cat batting the other side of the French doors. Once, when we heard Kota come in through her dog door, my husband and I hid under a blanket on the couch. We heard her go upstairs, looking, then downstairs, looking. When she finally found us, she was full of chuckles. The look on her face so spelled laughter, I never had any doubts.
Well now it appears there’s some actual evidence to back up what other dog lovers and I have seen for ages. Dogs do laugh. Their laughs are silent—at least to us—so they’re easy to overlook. But they certainly seem to be there.
Long ago, scientists thought humans were the only species that laughed. But in 1872 Charles Darwin questioned that idea when he observed (in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals) that chimps and great apes often made laugh-like sounds when they were playing. Fast-forward to present day, when Patricia Simonet at Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe is doing research on dog laughter. She started her work by audio-taping hours and hours of dog play. Simonet said that dog laughter "to an untrained human ear, it sounds much like a pant, 'hhuh, hhuh."
When Simonet had isolated a recording of just dog laughter, she played it for puppies and found that they romped around merrily when they heard it. More recently, a recording was played for dogs in a shelter at the Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Service. These dogs, which had been barking and riled up, immediately became quiet and relaxed. "It was a night-and-day difference," said the director of the center. "It was absolutely phenomenal."
Laughing dogs—you gotta love it. My latest book includes a laughing dog. Zoë, a white German shepherd, sees a touch of humor in everything. Because Zoë exists in fiction, I was able to take her one step farther. Not only does she get to narrate her own chapters, but she also gets to try operating a human body.
It’s pretty fun to try to think like a dog. Now if I could only learn to laugh like one…
Elsa Watson is the author of Dog Days, in which Zoë (a dog) and Jessica (a person) are struck by lightning and switch bodies, leaving Jessica trapped in a dog’s body—and giving Zoë thumbs and the chance to speak. Find Elsa online at www.elsawatson.net.