Are dogs funny? Last week I read a piece by Alexandra Horowitz, an author and researcher of dog behavior and cognition, who addressed that question and our portrayal of dogs in general. In the article she bemoaned the ubiquitous excess of “funny dog” photos and videos on the web, TV, and in the movies, claiming that they actually belittle dogs and ignore the “dog Other,” by which she means the real dog behind the human emotions we constantly foist upon them. As a dog behaviorist, she wonders why we disparage such magnificent animals by assigning them human motives. Her portrayals of dogs, she writes, would be different:
“It wouldn’t have dogs talking, in human speech, to be sure, or motivated by human desires. It would follow their heartbeats, their noses, and take a measure of the world viewed from two feet (or so) off the ground.….Wouldn’t the most transporting stories or snapshots we shared be those that really try to consider the dog Other—imagining a point of view of someone or something fundamentally foreign to us—instead of simply transplanting our story onto them?”
How to represent dogs is an issue we constantly wrestle with at Petswelcome. The bottom line is that we definitely think dogs are funny. But the important question is, how are dogs funny? For us it doesn’t necessarily involve dressing them up in costumes or putting them in situations that will elicit a laughable response. We agree that those approaches do not show animals in the best light, even though they are endlessly popular and make for great click bait. Instead, we think dogs are capable of making us laugh on their own—not because they’re essentially comical but because our lack of knowledge about them produces startling juxtapositions. And while making us laugh is just one aspect of our relationship (companionship, psychological and emotional bonding, assistance with disabilities, rescue and medical services are others), it is an essential ingredient, one we embrace but which shouldn’t come at the expense of a dog’s dignity.
I think we find dogs humorous because we are flummoxed by their Otherness, their weird and foreign exploits that sometimes reveal themselves in inexplicable, wonderful and hilarious ways. They seem so much like us but they’re really not. So maybe my dog’s need to please an alpha leader might be why, as I enter the house, he greets me dragging an entire sofa cushion in his mouth. And it works both ways. A grown man put in front of a dog suddenly starts uttering phrases like, “Whooz the goozy, whooshy, oozy gooz. Whose my bestus westus boozshy?” (A direct quote, I might add. We are nothing if not scientific here at Petswelcome).
My whole life I’ve witnessed the inexplicable behavior of dogs that translates into crazy-ass spectacles. But ones that enchanted me and made me a life-long devotee. I had a Vizsla that would perch on the front edge of our garage roof like a large vulture and stare down the Hudson River for hours at a time for no reason we could fathom. Eventually we had a regular line of cars passing our house every day to see the roof-sitting dog. He would also insist on getting me down on the floor whenever I came into the house and require me to wrestle with him nonstop until I literally held him upside down by his four legs and declared him the winner. I had an Irish Setter who possessed the demented grin of the Joker and whose behavior mirrored his criminal intent. His specialty was stealing pot roast (only pot roast) out of the oven even though my mother would wedge a broomstick through the handle to try to keep him from doing that just that. We never figured out how he did it. We had a dachshund who slept in the fireplace and who, every month or so, would enter the house with a leg, or some other appendage of a wild animal. The limb being bigger than he was, he’d make a surprisingly fast b-line to beneath our couch and not let us get near him until he finished whatever he was doing with it. These behaviors don’t even take into account the shoulder rolls into feces and/or carcasses (what’s that about?), the constant leg humping, tail chasing, squirrel, snake and ground hog killing, or the burying of valuable objects in the backyard. I have another dog who, whenever he gets an erection, doesn’t know what to do and suddenly bows his back, takes on the befuddled and embarrassed air of a priest who gets caught eating too much caviar at a funeral, and then tiptoes quietly away into the next room. You can’t make this stuff up.
My current dogs also exhibit the same delightfully weird behavior. For example, whenever I sweep the house (which isn’t too often) they go crazy. Hobbes, my Bracco Italiano, jumps up and does a circus spin in the air. Rusty, another Vizsla, starts running around and barking madly while occasionally jumping on Hobbes and humping him. What the hell? I thought. Do they like seeing me do chores? Do they prefer a clean house? Then it occurred to me that we use the broom handle to fish out all their bones and toys that somehow, every few weeks, end up congregating under the couch in our living room. Now they associate the broom with suddenly getting a treasure trove of good stuff and assume that the “Magic Stick,” as we now call it, somehow produces gifts on every appearance. Now, whenever we do sweep the bones out from under the couch, we make a spectacle out of it and dance and parade into the living room in happy communion with our dogs.
I celebrate these occasions. They are mysterious, sometimes miraculous, hilarious, life-affirming and always strange. They are Other. I don’t set them up. I don’t laugh at them because I wrote the script. They’re simply the spontaneous results of dogs and humans living together.
Long may our weirdness intertwine.