Chris Shaughness

author, speaker, animal lover

Pet Relationships,  All Articles

Laughter Truly is the Best Medicine

How does your dog respond when you laugh? Ever notice his or her reaction? Well, try it! My dogs’ tails wag furiously and I get lots of kisses. They may run to get a toy because they think it’s playtime. Dogs can sense the happy mood and they really like it. On the other hand, have you ever gotten angry and scolded someone in your dog’s presence or yelled at the dog? You get a very different reaction, right? Most dogs are equally sensitive to negative emotion and may run away, or try to placate you with nudges, or their tails may tuck. Whatever the reaction, you can see that dogs appreciate the fun and laughter lots more than the anger. We can then use that principle when training them or working with them to modify behavior.

A quote from an old Doobie Brothers song certainly applies to dogs too! ‘What people need is a way to make them smile; it ain’t so hard to do if you know how.” Dogs need to ‘smile’ just as much as we do. When we laugh, our dogs will associate what they are doing with the good feelings. Your dog gives you his paw and you laugh at him. I guarantee he’ll do it again to try to get your happy response. A dog kisses a child’s face and the child giggles. Lots more kisses result.

And the laughter has wonderful side effects for us as well. When we laugh, our bodies produce endorphins that make us feel even better. The better we feel, the happier we are, and the better our relationship with our dog.

Let’s use a few examples of problem behaviors to show how laughter can be used to modify behavior.

I recently worked with a woman whose dog had been biting her when she tried to wipe off his paws after coming in from a walk. Prior to my consultation, she had been scolding the dog when he growled and the dog’s problem behavior had escalated into biting. I observed the stressful interaction between her and the dog, and the dog clearly was picking up on the tension. After discussing methods of counter-conditioning and the need for more positive leadership with the dog, I demonstrated how to keep the mood upbeat and happy when trying to wipe the dog’s paws. It worked! The dog now cooperates and even considers paw-wiping a fun activity. It’s no longer a dreaded chore for everyone. If you read my article, “Grappling with Grooming” last year when I adopted my dog, Archie, I used these same principles when he resisted having his nails trimmed. I still laugh and blow raspberries on his paws every day!

Laughter can work to your advantage if you have a dog with aggression issues too. If your dog is aggressive to other dogs, try lightening up your mood when you encounter another dog on your walks. We know that scolding a dog for acting aggressively will only escalate the aggression. Use counter-conditioning techniques and add some laughter too. The whole idea behind counter-conditioning is getting the dog to associate good things happening. What better way to make your dog feel good than to experience your laughter? So when you see your neighbor coming down the street with his dog, start to laugh and make light of the situation while using the counter-conditioning techniques. Yes, you definitely will look and sound a little strange, but so what? Laughter is contagious. You may make a new friend!

And one last example: when doing obedience training, smile and laugh when your dog does the right thing. You will reinforce learning tremendously. And you’ll have a great time too!