Of Laughing Dogs, Signs, and the Use Of Symbols
||My dog, Lucky, laughs a
lot. Ive drawn peoples attention to his laughter and some say, "No,
thats not laughing." Others say, "Wow! Youre right! He is
laughing!" The ones who disagree dont believe animals can laugh. Most end up
agreeing with me, once they understand some things about the difference between two-legged
and four-legged creatures. So first lets talk about that difference.
Humans are bipeds. All other primates are not. All other mammals are not. What
does that have to do with laughter? Well, if you walk on two legs, you dont have to
coordinate your breathing with your locomotion. You can walk and laugh, talk, shout, carry
a baby, and even chew gum at the same time. But if you walk on four legs, you cant
just bust out with a big belly laugh every time something amuses you. The muscles in your
front legs are tied to your lung muscles, in order to facilitate running. As your front
legs move forward, you inhale; you exhale as they push back. As Robert R. Provine points
out in his article, "Laughter," "The close coupling of laughter to
breathing in chimpanzees may be evidence of a more general limitation on these animals to
speak" (39). If you arent a biped, laughter disrupts your movement too
thoroughly to be done while running. You have to choose.
So animals other than humans are forced to laugh in a very different manner than we do.
This is most evident in other primates. If you tickle a chimpanzee, he laughs. There is no
doubt, to any observer, that the chimp is laughing in response to the tickling. But
the laughter is very different than what you get if you tickle a human. Human beings laugh
in long, sustained bursts: ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha (breath) ha-ha-ha-ha-ha (breath)
ha-ha-ha-ha-ha; chimps laugh in short, choppy syllables, with a breath in between each
one: ha (breath) ha (breath) ha (breath) ha (breath) ha (breath) ha. Because their
musculature is built for the use of four legs, they have no choice. They simply cant
laugh like we do.
Thats the way Lucky laughs. As I mentioned above, the people who doubt it do not
believe creatures other than humans possess the ability to laugh. But they get very quiet
when I tell them about tickling chimpanzees. Most of them have watched enough Jane Goodall
programs or Discovery Channel specials to have seen a chimpanzee tickled. Once they think
about that, they start to really think about whether animals might have a sense of humor.
For how can something laugh if it has no sense of humor?
When Lucky and I are hiking a familiar trail, he likes nothing more than hiding in the
brush until I am past, and then popping out. He runs past me, laughing like mad at the
slow, dim-witted human who cant keep up and didnt see him hiding. Occasionally
Ill sneak up on him as he lies in wait to ambush me. He immediately runs down the
trail, laughing at my joke. His laughter is a little hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh-hunh
sound, with an inhalation in between each syllable, a sound he makes at no other time.
Hes laughing. Hes teasing me.
On the Pine-Cedar Lakes trail, there is a place where a massive cedar tree has
disintegrated next to the uphill side of the trail. The mixture of cedar sawdust has
turned the sandy dirt red, and the combination of the cedar and sand makes this a great
place for rolling in, to shed fleas. Lucky loves to sit on this dirt-hill, just high
enough that I often do not see him as I walk past. He lets me saunter on by, then runs as
fast as he can, passing me at full speed. His laughter rings out as he does this, and he
usually runs fifty or more yards before he stops laughing.
He understands other jokes, too. Once my hiking partner, Al, tried to pull a trick on
him. We were resting next to a lake. Al got up and called Lucky, saying, "OK, Lucky,
lets go! Come on, boy! Heres the trail!" while pretending to walk into
the lake. Lucky just looked at him, then at me. Al kept trying for a few moments, and
Lucky would go to the edge of the water, but not in. Finally he snorted in disgust and
went and lay down next to me, eyeing Al with suspicion. But when we were leaving, Lucky
bumped Als knee with his muzzle (something he does when he wants your attention) and
ran off the trail, up the side of a steep hill. He went halfway up the hill, turned,
looked straight at Al, and snorted. Al didnt get it at first. To me it was obvious
that Lucky was saying, "OK, Al, lets go! Cmon, boy! Heres the
Laughter is one form of communication. But it is a sign of amusement; it is not
a symbol of anything. Its a response to a situation, not a representation of
the situation. It is a very simple means of sharing. Lucky never laughs sardonically, or
to humiliate. That form of communication is beyond him.
The difference between understanding signs and using symbols seems to be
a major part of the distinction between the way Lucky can communicate and the way humans
do. In the essay "Baby Born TalkingDescribes Heaven," Steven Pinker
describes the different stages of language, and talks about how quickly language develops
in humans: "Between the late twos and the mid-threes, childrens language blooms
into fluent grammatical conversation so rapidly that it overwhelms the researchers who
study it . . ." (39). Pinker goes on to describe how the syntax and complexity of
speech increase exponentially until the youngster is using extraordinarily complex
sentences by the third birthday. When I read this, I was reminded of an event I saw at my
brother-in-laws house. His two-year-old daughter was standing at the side of the
refrigerator playing with magnetic letters. She said, "Words." She had
conceptualized the idea of words. I was struck mightily by the fact that she had,
in just a week since Id last seen her, surpassed my dog in her ability. She had made
Dont get me wrong. Lucky understands many words. He knows the standards: sit,
down, stay, cookie, come, and many others as well. Nothing puts him into a sulk quicker
than "You have to stay here." And very little excites him more than
"Lets go for a walk." But however Lucky comprehends meaning, he is still
only using the words as signs, rather than symbols. As long as the word
"stay" is in the sentence, he knows hes not going. If he hears
"go" or "walk," he assumes he is invited. He comprehends the word
"go" in exactly the same way he experiences seeing me put on my coat: its
a sign that we are heading out. When my niece pointed to the letters on the
refrigerator and said, "Words," she jumped over into a new realm: that of symbols.
She recognized the objects as signifying something more than colorful pieces of
plastic with magnets glued on their backs. She knew they could become something other than
their physical selves, a representation of something greater.
I see this difference of perception, between humans and animals, in many ways.
Youngsters learn fairly early on in their lives to look where youre pointing. If you
point, they will follow your fingers direction until they hit something interesting.
If nothing interesting presents itself in that direction they look back to you for further
clues. But if I point at something in Luckys presence, he will look at my finger. He
can only see my finger as a sign, and loses interest in it quickly, since it is not doing
anything particularly interesting. He cant see it as a symbol of direction,
only as a finger. If I want him to see something, I can say, "Look!" He has
learned to cast about, since there must be something interesting to see. But if I
accompany my words with my pointing finger, he is momentarily confused, trying to discover
what possible reason I might have to direct his attention to my finger. I dont know
if he views pointing as a bad joke, or some character flaw in humans, but I am sure he
does not perceive it as having any symbolic value.
Similarly, I have no way of telling him something like "You must stay here until I
get back, and then well go for a walk." If I say that to him, hell jump
up and head for the door, hoping I meant the last half of the statement. Its as if,
when he hears "go for a walk," his brain erases "You must stay here."
He has no ability to attach words together; he cannot process "until" with
"stay," or "then" with "walk." Hes unable to make a
connection of understanding symbols; he can only perceive them as signs.
Temple Grandin has a similar difficulty. Born autistic, she is unable to process
non-visual information in the way those of us who are "normal" do. In her essay,
"Thinking in Pictures," she says, "When I am unable to convert text to
pictures, it is usually because the text has no concrete meaning." (29) She describes
the difficulties she experienced trying to understand words like "is,"
"the," "of," and "it," since they have no meaning by
themselves. She learned their use through simple mimicry of her parents speech,
rather than by comprehending what the general pattern of usage required, as children do
when learning language. Due to autism, her brain is wired only to accept images, rather
than the complex concepts needed for speech. She still struggles with abstractions, like
philosophy, and some verb conjugations. But her talent is in thinking like animals: she
designs cattle chutes and enclosures for a living, able to visualize what the animals need
far better than those who process words "normally."
I think Luckys brain is wired in a similar way. He listens intently to everything
I say, but Im quite sure I am only communicating with signs, visual images of things
he knows: sit, stay, walk, go, come, and so on. Any talk of tomorrow, Saturday, after, if,
when, or last week is gibberish, no more use to him than prepositions and philosophy texts
are to Temple Grandin. Out of context, they just dont have any sense. And if I could
teach him what "is" means, how long would it take to explain "was?"
Its clear to me that the wiring just isnt there for language. But I am
thrilled hes wired for laughter.
Grandin, Temple. "Thinking in Pictures." Hirschberg and
Hirschberg, Stuart, and Terry Hirschberg, eds. Reflections on Language.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Provine, Robert R. "Laughter." American Scientist Jan-Feb