Do Dogs Have a Sense of Humour?
Much of our bind with our dogs comes from the fact that they are the playful and uninhibited creatures that we could be if we weren’t so worried about what other people thought. Dogs have a playfulness that we have actually bred into them by creating animals with minds that remain much like those of wolf puppies all their lives. Their juvenile minds make dogs want to play and do silly things that make us laugh, and we tend to equate this with a sense of humour.
Not all breeds are created equally, however, and some are more playful than others. Two animal behaviourists from the University of California at Davis, Dr. Benjamin Hart and Dr. Lynnette Hart, had a group of experts rank 56 different breeds of dogs in terms of their playfulness. By "playfulness" they meant things like a willingness to chase balls, Kongs or Frisbees, to engage in hide-and-seek, and so forth. I suppose that nobody would be too surprised to find that the Irish Setter, English Springer Spaniel, Airedale, Golden Retriever and Poodle all ranked high in playfulness, whereas the Bloodhound, Bulldog and Basset Hound ranked low. On the next page, I’ve provided a full list of those playfulness rankings for you.
As many owners will undoubtedly attest, playful dogs are not an unmitigated blessing. While they are a joy to people who can handle the occasional bout of chaos, they are an exasperation to those who cannot. Take the case of Joan and Flint. Joan is my wife, and Flint was her gift to me. When, for the first time in my life, I found myself without a dog, Joan knew I would go crazy if I didn’t get one soon. She also knew that I had set my mind on a Cairn Terrier. They make me laugh. After I mentioned a breeder who had a line of dogs I really liked, Joan announced that she was giving me a puppy from their most recent litter as a Christmas gift. He would eventually grow up to become the number one Cairn Terrier in obedience competition in Canada. He would also grow up to own a large part of my heart and to be the bane of my wife’s existence. On this day, however, Joan smiled and held him and we had a lovely family picture taken with the puppy under the Christmas tree.
The following year my wife bought me a 12 gauge shotgun for Christmas. Our daughter Karen assured me that she there was a clear symbolic connection between the two Christmas gifts.
Flint was a constant trial for Joan. She was a prairie girl who grew up in a family that kept large sporting dogs, mostly retrievers, pointers and hounds. Hers were working dogs that were allowed into the house only when they were to be fed or when the temperature dropped to something around minus 40 and everyone felt guilty about their welfare. They were trained to pay attention, to do what they were told, and to work silently. Quiet, order, reliability, predictability and unobtrusiveness are values that Joan cherishes in her own life and also demands from her dogs.
A terrier as a house dog was something completely beyond her experience. Joan had never encountered the likes of this kind of dog before and was completely unprepared for it. She was not amused by the game "Imaginary Burglar," which Flint played with great vigour on carefully selected nights at 2 A.M. At such times he would jump up onto the bed with a furious round of barking explosive enough to awaken the entire house. Careful investigation would often reveal that the triggering event was something like the wind brushing some tree branches against the house. To keep Joan from disemboweling Flint at such moments, I would explain to her that terriers are specifically bred to bark and it is the sound of their barking when they have gone underground which tells the hunters where to dig to uncover the fox or badger. (Somehow this was lost on her at 2 A.M.) I even went so far as to buy Flint a silly little doggie cap with the motto "Born to Bark" embroidered on it. Joan did not find this amusing either.
"Why didn’t you tell me all this before we got him?" she grumbled and then wandered off muttering something about "nice quiet dogs, like Golden Retrievers and Labs," and musing loudly to herself, "I suppose Flint wants me to believe there’s a badger under the bed or something."
Flint had a mind of his own, and his likes and dislikes had no regard for Joan’s preferred lifestyle. She would shoo him off a chair only to see him immediately jump up on the sofa. She would push him off one side of the bed only to have him jump back up on the other. She would scold him for barking at the door only to have him jump up and begin barking at the window. One day she had some friends over for afternoon coffee. Flint hung around the group, nosing at the visitors to test the possibility that one of them might scratch his ear or perhaps accidentally drop something edible nearby. Joan became concerned that he might be annoying her guests, so she waved him away.
"Flint, stop bothering these people. Go find something interesting to do."
Flint’s desire to follow her instruction was clearly aroused and he dashed out of the room with a great sense of purpose. A few minutes later, he reappeared carrying one of Joan’s undergarments. Evading capture, he proceeded to flagrantly snap it from side to side with great joy-to the amusement of the company and the dismay of my wife.
Flint and Joan almost came to terms over one issue. In the genes of every terrier is the ability and desire to eliminate rats and other vermin from the face of the earth. While cats are certainly more efficient at killing mice, where stealth and patience are the most important qualities for the hunt, rats are often too large and aggressive. So way back, terriers were bred for the job. Flint proved to be quite an efficient "varmiting" dog, eliminating many rats, mice, moles, gophers, even an opossum, mostly at the little farm where I go to hide and write.
Flint’s ability to hunt rodents did endear him (for a while at least) to my wife. In the city we live in an old house that is not well sealed, especially around the basement area. Each winter, mice seem to find a way to work themselves inside. Flint turned out to be of great assistance with this problem, hunting rodents the way terriers were bred to do, and with a degree of patience and dedication that would make cat owners envious. He was a fabulous biological mousetrap and Joan was quite pleased with his proficiency.
Typically when Flint would kill a mouse he would leave it on the floor where it fell. When Joan noticed, she would gladly dispose of the small carcass and encourage Flint to keep up the good work. She would warmly praise him for his efforts, giving him a friendly pat and maybe even a treat. Perhaps Flint saw this as his opportunity to make amends with that other human he lived with, or perhaps he just reverted to being a terrier with a sense of humour. In any event, one morning 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, which caused Flint to dance happily around her. He now knew that he had done something truly great and grand, since it was causing such an interesting commotion on her side of the bed and such convulsive laughter on my side.
As with many terriers, Flint’s motto in life was, "If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three." ■
Stanley Coren is Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia
and author of several books on dogs, including How to Speak Dog and
Pawprints of History. His website is www.stanleycoren.com.