A smiling service dog may be no laughing matter.

Papillon DogAnaleise Grotton says: “The first time I saw my service dog smiling at me – and I can’t think of any other word besides ‘smile’ to describe it – I didn’t realize that she was actually trying to tell me something. In her own special way, she was trying to alert me to an oncoming seizure. What makes it even stranger is that she hadn’t been trained to do that; I had acquired a trained service dog to pick up things I dropped and to help me with things I can’t bend down to do.” [Analeise broke her back in 1994]

As Analeise explains, she never knew about these episodic events because they were brief and she was often alone when they happened.  But she did suspect something was wrong: “It was as if the world stopped for a moment, like I had blacked out for a few seconds. Still, I shrugged this off, telling myself I was just distracted, not paying attention, that nothing odd had happened. It never occurred to me I was actually having some sort of seizure. I didn’t put it together until a few girlfriends were at my house and my service dog started her grinning and panting behavior.  The next thing I knew, one of my friends was snapping her fingers in front of my eyes and asking me if I was all right.  I had blanked out for 10-20 seconds that time and, I guess was doing a couple weird things, like smacking my lips real hard. Anyway, tests confirmed I have something called ‘focal seizures.’ Now I know what my dog means when she starts, if you’ll excuse the expression, ‘Laughing at me.’”

But do dogs actually laugh?  Besides this wonderful service dog story, the idea that dogs might actually laugh seems possible, especially when the internet is replete with marvelously funny photos of dogs who certainly do seem to be smiling, even laughing. So we collected some information – and some photos – information to give you something to consider and a few photos that, well, made us laugh out loud!

Do Dogs Laugh?
The only animal we know that seems to laugh like a human is the hyena.  But, despite their doggie-looks, hyenas do not belong to the family Canidae. However, to explore the possibility that dogs laugh, research conducted in 2001 showed dogs “play-pant,” with breathy exhalation, which appears to effect other dogs.  In turn the other dogs seem motivated to playfulness.

While “play-pants” is not exactly laughter, in the same way we humans respond, dogs often look as if they’re laughing. For dogs, facial expression is similar to the way we humans evaluate what someone says by how their face looks when they’re telling us something.  Indeed, there are numerous studies and books on facial expression analysis and how our facial movements impact the meaning of our words.

Research shows most dogs can convey more than 90 facial expressions that other dogs can understand.

Given that we now know how important a dog’s facial expressions are in relating to other dogs, some, like the bulldog, have had these expressions bred out of them.  Sadly, such canines, including for example, the infamous pit bull, consequently end up fighting their way out of trouble from other dogs simply because they cannot exhibit the appropriate facial expression of submission or disinterest when confronted by another dog. So, a perfectly sweet, playful dog might be targeted by another simply because its specialized breeding for “looks,” destroyed its natural face.

Ironic, isn’t it, how we laugh at the weird face of a bulldog or dogs like that whose natural state we’ve managed to alter beyond recognition? It is a wonder, given all we’ve done to the dog that any of them still like us. I only hope that if these dogs are truly laughing, they’re laughing with us – not at us! (But who knows?)












Hope these pics give you a moment to LOL.



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13 Responses to A smiling service dog may be no laughing matter.

  1. Dirk Peterson May 7, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

    Hi Patricia,

    Great blog. Keep up the good work and bring more smiles for us canine lovers.

  2. Gloria Yarina May 7, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    Great article!
    I am a true believer that dogs smile.
    So, why can’t they also laugh.
    Cute pictures of smilling dogs.
    My contribution of Mimi, as she appeared in the book Joy Dog by Bark Magazine.

    • Dr. B May 7, 2014 at 6:55 pm #

      Thank you for sharing this wonderful photo! What a joyful expression on this dog! Who can doubt that this dog is smiling?

  3. Jaana Hatton May 7, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    Another interesting article! I love the photos, made my day.
    We, as people, tend to attribute human traits to our pets. As we now know, what looks like a smile may indicate something else. It would be interesting to learn more about the meaning of the facial expressions of dogs – way come up with a few surprises.

    Keep up with the great research, Patricia. It is fun to learn something new from you every week.

  4. Mary E. Trimble May 7, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    When we lived in Africa, we heard hyenas laugh. It’s very spooky. I think I can tell when my lab laughs–it’s usually when we’re all together and doing something fun. His tail wags and he “says” a sort of huh, huh, huh.

  5. Norman W Wilson May 7, 2014 at 2:34 pm #

    I guess one could say “it’s not a laughing matter,” but then we know dog history is full of great deeds of heroism, sacrifice, and valour when it comes to their humans. One particular statement caught my attention: Did man really breed facial expression out of pit bulls and bull dogs? If so, for what purpose?

    • Dr. B May 7, 2014 at 7:00 pm #

      OK Dr. Wilson — you always ask the most intriguing questions. The dog literature doesn’t explain why we have so brutally “reconfigured” dogs to meet some (in my mind) unattainable and unrealistic standard. But your question goes to the heart of the problem: Why, indeed, have we done this? Given that most breeds were developed in the 1800s when demand from the fashionable ladies almost obliterated (and, sadly in many cases, did) some of the most gorgeous birds on earth, I can only surmise that just like today, people created something they thought admirable or beautiful, without any understanding of what this meant to the health and temperament of the dog. Most people would agree that form without function is unwise. Yet, habitually, we think it’s just fine to do this to dogs. (See also response from Pat Brown-John).

  6. Bill Thorn May 7, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

    Serious subject but, tremendous captioning potential as well!!

  7. Pat Brown-John May 7, 2014 at 6:00 pm #

    I enjoyed the article Patricia. The pictures brought a smile to my day.
    You are right about the breeding that we have done to “better” different breeds. Some are almost unrecognizable. Although there are breeders who still stick to the old standards, it must be hard for them to compete with what people now think is how their dog should look.
    More important than looks in my opinion is the nerve and temperament of the dogs. Hopefully we can preserve that but it will have to be done by buyers who are knowledgable about the breed that they are looking for and be prepared to walk away if they don’t see outgoing and confident puppies.
    Sorry about the rant but I feel strongly about this issue.

  8. Marie Grime May 10, 2014 at 9:06 am #

    That is a shame about our having bred some dogs out of their abilities to properly show facial expressions, leaving them vulnerable to other dogs.

    The worst human damage is from the macho types that want to use the poor animal to instill fear, and I would bet that is why the poor bulldog breeds had their faces distorted. And they are such sweet dogs!

    We have done such horrible things to dogs, it is amazing that they still like us as much as they do.

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