Those of us who choose (very intelligently, in my opinion!) to live with dogs are basically co-habitating with aliens. Not only are we completely different species, but we aren't even particularly closely related as separate species- we're primates, they're canids. Sure, we're both mammals, with a common ancestor of some small furry creature that survived the mass extinction that whacked the dinosaurs, but we have both been evolving along completely separate lines for millennia. So, their minds are truly alien minds relative to us- that we live together so successfully is a remarkable result of canine flexibility, a common desire of our two species to live in tightly bound, highly socialized groups, and thousands of years of human efforts to domesticize wolfs into a creature that fits wonderfully into human society. However, in the area of communication, despite remarkable canine capabilities to understand what their humans are trying to say, humans often are woefully inept at understanding what 'the wolf on the couch' is trying to say back to us.
Some of the broader forms of doggie communication are well understood by most humans- that raised hackles, shown teeth, and growling mean 'I consider you a threat and will defend myself and my territory', that a relaxed body posture, a wagging tail, and an open mouth equates to the canine version of a smile- but many others are either poorly understood or misinterpreted. Even commonly 'understood' behaviors can be improperly interpreted; for instance, one dog I know is anything but aggressive, and loves me dearly, but she greets me and every person she likes with a mix of signals. She gets all the 'doggie smile' elements right except she doesn't present the usual relaxed mouth, she pulls her teeth back from her gums in a snarl. This mixed signal is simply the result of a crossed wire somewhere, probably the result of a past trauma before she was rescued. She is in no way aggressive; for some reason her brain triggers a signal for 'stay away, I am scared and ready to defend myself' when she is excited to see someone she likes. (This is an illustration of how terrible things can happen to dogs when humans are sure they know what a dog is communicating, but are completely wrong- this sweet, wonderful dog, who has never shown any sign of hurting a fly, could very well have been long since euthanized for being 'aggressive'.)
There are at least two forms of doggie expression that are unmistakable, and are wonderful to hear, as they mean your furry person is happy and loving life: the contentment grunt, and the doggie laugh. Below, I'll share what these two expressions sound like, and the common held agreement on what they mean.
The contentment grunt
What it sounds like: Ever had this experience? Your furry person is comfortably laid out somewhere, having a lovely nap. They awaken (even momentarily), stretch, and let out a rather pig-like groaning sort of grunt. That's a contentment grunt, which can be long and contain several individual grunts, or just one elongated expression.
What it means: This is the same sound puppies often make while nursing, and when used by adult dogs it is likely a throwback to memories of their days as a happy puppy, safe and warm and filling their belly with their mother's milk. It means they feel completely safe, and have all their needs fulfilled. Safety is a very important factor in doggie happiness- many behavior issues arise from not feeling secure. Dogs have not lost the universal fear shared by all animals that can be preyed upon by another more powerful predator. They share the basic drive to 'make sure nothing jumps me and has me for lunch' that is one of the top priorities for all wild animals other than apex predators (and even apex predators often have a fear of other, more powerful members of their own species, that may not eat them, but very well may kill them as a competitor for food or mates). You don't survive for long in the wild if you don't watch your back, constantly and diligently. The contentment grunt tells you that this basic source of doggie discomfort- "is something about to get me?", is completely buried under feelings of safety and fulfilled needs.
The doggie laugh
What it sounds like: You've probably heard this sound many times, and not known what it means. Basically, it's somewhere between a snort and sneeze- a forceful exhalation through a dog's nose (some online sources say the laugh happens through the mouth- seems like the nose is more involved to me). Like a human laugh, it is usually not a single sound, but a series of sounds, in this case a series of snorts of varying strengths. This sound is most commonly heard when a dog is doing something they really enjoy, usually play they interpret as being particularly fun and exciting. They will also make the sound at the end of a particularly enjoyable meal or treat. Two dogs having a great time will often 'laugh uproariously' by engaging in multiple snorting laughs- like human laughter, doggie laughs seem to be infectious.
What it means: The doggie laugh seems to be like the human version, without the subtleties we bring to the expression, like the grim laugh. Since it seems to only occur when dogs are feeling particularly happy, it would appear to mean only that- that the furry person laughing is expressing that they are having great fun. It seems to not only occur with exciting, active fun like play, but occasionally seems to say 'I am very happy and content'- one of my furry family members gives me a laugh sometimes when I go out of my way to acknowledge and praise him, even when he is half asleep on the couch.
One of the wonderful things about understanding basic dog communication like the contentment grunt and doggie laugh is that it tells you your furry friend is enjoying life. Dogs that regularly make these two sounds are loving life, meaning your giving them comfort and happiness in exchange for all the comfort and happiness they give to you!
(© Paul Randall, 2017)