Is Yawning Contagious Between Humans And Dogs? Study Says It Is

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic

Many owners claim that when they yawn, their dog yawns, too. And now researchers have confirmed that they are right. 

Several studies have shown that dogs are more likely to yawn when their owners yawn. This phenomenon is called contagious yawning and is well-known among humans - you’ve probably done it yourself countless times. When we hear, see, or sometimes just think about yawning, many of us yawn. Now, research shows that our four-legged companions exhibit the same behavior.

Studies done on humans show that people who catch a yawn from another person have better social skills. Researchers believe that contagious yawns show that we empathize with our fellow yawner. But does the same hold true for dogs?

“It’s reasonable to assume that dogs who yawn when their owners do are more emotionally connected to them,” said Dr. Brian Hare, the founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. Adding that dogs understand us better than any other animal, including primates.

In humans, contagious yawning has been considered a sign of empathy. However, researchers are still debating whether this phenomenon may be a sign of a connection between people and their canine companions. 

A University in Tokyo study found that dogs yawned twice as often after watching their owners yawn than after watching strangers yawn. This finding suggested that a social bond associated with empathy might be behind this behavior. 

Teresa Romero, an animal behavioral researcher who conducted the study, explained that contagious yawning may be a way for animals who live together to coordinate their activities. This behavior may be deeply rooted in canine history, considering that they have been living with humans for more than 15,000 years. The long relationship with humans may have given the dogs the necessary tools to empathize with us.

However, later studies were unable to determine such a connection. A meta-analysis of 257 dogs didn’t find conclusive evidence that contagious yawning in dogs is associated with empathy or familiarity.  

There’s just no strong support for a direct connection between contagious yawning and empathy, despite the fact that the predictions are very intuitive,” explained Andrew Gullap, a psychology professor at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York.  

Dr. Hare, who studied dog yawns at Duke Canine Cognition Center has discovered that only five percent of dogs yawn contagiously. However, his findings come from an online, at-home test called Dognition. This test asks the owners to watch their dogs just for two minutes to see if they’ll do a contagious yawn. On the other hand, all other dog yawn studies have watched the dog for as long as five minutes after their owner yawned to see whether they’ll yawn too.

“I’m not against the idea that dogs yawn contagiously,” Dr. Hare admitted. “We are just having a hard time demonstrating it. It’s possible we’re doing (the yawn test) wrong. We are going to analyze the data and find out more.” 

Several studies have concluded that dogs can yawn contagiously when they see or hear a person yawn. However, scientists still haven’t figured out what contagious yawning means. 

Studying dog yawning is difficult because dogs can yawn for many reasons - some of which have nothing to do with seeing a human yawn. Dogs can yawn spontaneously, and let’s not forget that yawning can be a sign of stress in dogs. A dog’s stress levels may be heightened during laboratory experiments in which the dog is videotaped to see whether they’ll yawn or not, affecting results.

Hopefully, scientists will find better ways to study contagious yawning in dogs and discover what this behavior means. 

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Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

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