Universally known and appreciated for their playful, uninhibited nature, dogs’ penchant for play generally reflects these creatures’ more or less juvenile minds; they have been bred to remain much like their wolf puppy forebears for all of their lives. It’s part of what makes them unconditionally loving companions that like to frolic and do silly things that make us laugh. Humans tend to equate such play with a sense of humor.
Charles Darwin may have been the first scientist to suggest that dogs have a sense of humor. As part of his renowned evolutionary studies, Darwin considered the emotions of animals and humans, looking for parallels and similarities. It appeared to him that dogs do have a sense of humor, which appears best when they are playing a sort of emotional add-on to their games. In the 1872 edition of The Descent of Man, Darwin writes:
“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.”
The Nobel Prize-winning ethnologist, Konrad Lorenz, says that it is during play that dogs actually appear to laugh. In his book, Man Meets Dog, Lorenz describes it this way:
“… an invitation to play always follows; here the slightly opened jaws which reveal the tongue, and the tilted angle of the mouth which stretches almost from ear to ear give a still stronger impression of laughing. This ‘laughing’ is most often seen in dogs playing with an adored master and which become so excited that they soon start panting.”
While we cannot enter the mind of a dog to examine the mischievous machinations of its mental state, it is possible to determine how playful a dog is comparatively speaking. Not all breeds are created equally; some are definitively more playful than others. Some seem to have a sense of play that they cannot suppress, while others seem to shun play.
Two animal behaviorists from the University of California-Davis, Dr. Benjamin Hart, a veterinarian, and Lynnette Hart, a zoologist, had a group of experts rank 56 different breeds of dogs in terms of playfulness. By playfulness, they mean things like a willingness to chase balls or Frisbees and to engage in games like hide-and-seek. Those that ranked highest included the Irish setter, English springer spaniel, Airedale, golden retriever and poodle. The bloodhound, bulldog and basset hound ranked low. Following are the results of the Harts’ research.
The most playful breeds: Irish setter, English springer spaniel, miniature schnauzer, cairn terrier, Airedale terrier, standard poodle, Shetland sheepdog, golden retriever, Australian shepherd, miniature poodle and German shorthaired pointer.
Above average playfulness: Vizsla, fox terrier, Labrador retriever, Boston terrier, Yorkshire terrier, West Highland white terrier, toy poodle, German shepherd, silky terrier, Welsh corgi and Shih-Tzu.
Average playfulness: dachshund, Weimaraner, bichon frise, cocker spaniel, Scottish terrier, Dalmatian, boxer, pug, Maltese, beagle, collie and Brittany spaniel.
Below average playfulness: Norwegian elkhound, Doberman pinscher, Chesapeake Bay retriever, Siberian husky, keeshond, Afghan hound, Pomeranian, Lhasa Apso, Newfoundland, English sheepdog and great Dane.
Least playful breeds: Samoyed, Chihuahua, Rottweiler, Pekingese, akita, Alaskan Malamute, Saint Bernard, basset hound, chow chow, bulldog and bloodhound.
As many human companions may attest, playful dogs are sometimes a mixed blessing. While they are a joy to people who can handle the occasional bout of chaos, they may exasperate those who cannot. For a person who values peace and quiet, a Pekingese that is happy to snuggle up, but shuns play, may suit better than an Irish setter that will try everything to get his human up and responding to his overwhelming need to play and exercise his sense of fun.
Stanley Coren, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of several books on dogs, including The Intelligence of Dogs, How Dogs Think and The Modern Dog. His website is www.StanleyCoren.com.