Yawning is contagious. We all know that. At least, yawns are contagious among humans. Dogs are a different story. But a recent study organized by the University of Tokyo suggests that yawns do play a role in a dog’s life, just not the one we might have assumed.
It seems that when your dog yawns, that might be his way of saying he cares about you.
According to the study, dogs are more likely to yawn in response to their owner’s yawning, than to a stranger’s. This may not sound like much on paper, but the scientists involved in the study suggest this demonstrates a dog’s emotional connectedness to his owner (and humans in general).
The study included 25 dogs that watched their owners and strangers yawn, and even pretend to yawn. One assumption, prior to the study, was that dogs yawned as a form of stress, since yawning can be caused by anxiety.
This assumption was quickly ruled out when there seemed to be no change in the yawning dogs’ heartbeats.
What the study showed however, was that dogs were more likely to yawn after their owners yawned, and were less likely to yawn if a human offered a fake yawn. This is quite similar to a study released last year that showed that humans are more apt to succumb to contagious yawning in response to the yawns of people they care about the most.
That study suggested that a human’s contagious yawning is a form of empathy, as yawning usually indicated stress, anxiety, boredom or fatigue. When we catch a yawn from someone else, the study suggests we’re empathizing with that other person. Apparently, our dogs are just as sensitive.
Contagious yawning is obvious among chimpanzees, baboons and dogs, but this recent University of Tokyo study is the first study to show contagious yawning among different species. Elisabetta Palagi, of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome, stated that this study “demonstrates that dogs are capable of empathic abilities toward humans.”
Are dogs alone in this trait? Can other animals feel empathy toward us as this study suggests dogs do? Palagi, who wasn’t involved in the study, says one theory behind this is that dogs can empathize with humans, unlike any other animal, as a result of their long process of domestication. Other animals who experience contagious yawning (like chimps), have yet to demonstrate this contagious trait when humans are involved in the equation.
What’s this all mean? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps it’s just another example of how dogs truly are man’s best friend. Perhaps people who believe their dogs can sense their emotions aren’t so misled after all. Try it yourself. See if your dog yawns after you (and don’t forget to throw in some fake yaws along the way). Let us know your results!