Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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David Laws
English 201
Essay 2
November 2002

Of Laughing Dogs, Signs, and the Use Of Symbols

Lucky My dog, Lucky, laughs a lot. I’ve drawn people’s attention to his laughter and some say, "No, that’s not laughing." Others say, "Wow! You’re right! He is laughing!" The ones who disagree don’t 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 let’s 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 don’t 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 can’t 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 aren’t 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 can’t laugh like we do.

That’s 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 can’t keep up and didn’t see him hiding. Occasionally I’ll 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. He’s laughing. He’s 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, let’s go! Come on, boy! Here’s 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 Al’s 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 didn’t get it at first. To me it was obvious that Lucky was saying, "OK, Al, let’s go! C’mon, boy! Here’s the trail!"

Laughter is one form of communication. But it is a sign of amusement; it is not a symbol of anything. It’s 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 Talking—Describes 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, children’s 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-law’s 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 I’d last seen her, surpassed my dog in her ability. She had made a leap.

Don’t 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 "Let’s 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 he’s 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: it’s 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 you’re pointing. If you point, they will follow your finger’s 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 Lucky’s 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 we’ll go for a walk." If I say that to him, he’ll jump up and head for the door, hoping I meant the last half of the statement. It’s 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." He’s 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 Lucky’s brain is wired in a similar way. He listens intently to everything I say, but I’m 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 don’t have any sense. And if I could teach him what "is" means, how long would it take to explain "was?" It’s clear to me that the wiring just isn’t there for language. But I am thrilled he’s wired for laughter.


Works Cited

Grandin, Temple. "Thinking in Pictures." Hirschberg and Hirschberg 127-131.

Hirschberg, Stuart, and Terry Hirschberg, eds. Reflections on Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Provine, Robert R. "Laughter." American Scientist Jan-Feb 1996: 38-47.


Copyright 2002
David Laws


Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA