This topic is making me yawn. Literally. I’m doing it as I type this. Not because it’s boring, but because yawning is contagious in a large percentage of people (If one person yawned, then 45-60% of the people observing it yawned themselves, according to one study). You don’t even have to see someone yawn to get the effect: Just reading or thinking about yawning can make some of us yawn involuntarily. (If you are as bad as I am about this, and just the letters “y,a,w…” can start you yawning, don’t feel foolish. It turns out that being susceptible to “contagious yawning” correlates with all kinds of good things, including high levels of empathy, and higher scores on theory of mind. Well, cool, she said, yawning again.)
But you no doubt know that this response isn’t confined to our own species; Dogs respond to human yawns at high rates too. In one study, 72% of the dogs were observed yawning immediately after their owner yawned. But here’s the question that a new study addressed: Why are the dogs yawning? Given that we believe that yawns can sometimes indicate low levels of stress, are dogs yawning in response to their owner’s gaping maws doing so as a sign of mild stress, or as an empathetic response?
You might take a moment, if you are a science nerd, to think about how one would go about testing this. Romero, Konno & Hasegawa describe how they did it in their study, “Familiarity bias and physiological responses in contagious yawning by dogs support link to empathy” in PLoS ONE, 2013. The authors did so by having 25 dogs sit beside a yawning human. In one case it was their owner, in another, an unfamiliar person. They also tested dog’s responses to “fake yawns,” in which a person opened their mouth without the usual dramatic air exchange that is part of a real yawn. The dog’s heart rate was monitored remotely, and there was no increase or significant change of heart rate found. (I should note, although this is not exactly my wheelhouse, that heart rate itself is not always a good indicator of stress. Heart rate variability, HRV, is believed by many of my colleagues to be a better measure.)
The results found that dogs were about 2 and a half times more likely to yawn after their owner did than a stranger, and much more often than in response to a fake yawn. The authors suggest that the results point to empathy as a motivation for yawning, not stress.
I love getting yet more solid data about the biological miracle that is the relationship between us and our dogs. On a side note, did you see the article about wolf puppies fetching balls to people without any training? Given how highly social wolf puppies are, and how social their play, I’m not surprised but I love that it’s got people thinking more deeply about this amazing bond we have with dogs.
Hmmm. Time to go play with Maggie. But a question for you first: Are you a “contagious yawner?” Your dog? Yawn away, and let us know.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Nellie believes that winters are to be spent indoors, and cuddling with Maggie is a good way to do it. Maggie actually was sound asleep until I approached with the camera, that baleful look is to me no doubt, not Nellie. The light was horrible, but Nellie’s blissful face makes me smile.
My apologies, I am obsessed with the colors from my tiny, tulip garden from White Flower Farm. This time of year I am a bit insane for color, and soak it up like a thirsty sponge.
May your week be full of color in all kinds of ways.
I am a *very* contagious yawner–my dogs, not so much. I will yawn every time I see Ronan or Tamsen yawn . Heck, I’ve even yawned in response to a goldfish “yawn.” (Seriously). However, neither Ronan nor Tamsen yawn after seeing me do so. Hmmm.
Debby Gray says
I have tried yawning with my dog but the results make me sad. Perhaps because of his early experiences; we think he was a dumped puppy who wandered on his own for about 8 weeks, any sudden intake of air on my part in yawning or sneezing sends him either off the bed or couch or at least puts him on high alert.
On the other hand if he yawns, I start yawning!
You got me with the first three words of the title… I have been yawning ever since!
De Hufford says
Yawn…….so interesting how it works.
I think it was one of your books that advocated yawning (and lip-licking) when approaching a strange dog to indicate that you’re not a threat. Because yawning lowers stress levels? Is that it?
I don’t remember the specifics, but I have put the advice into action many times and I’ve noticed that getting low, turning to the side, looking away from the dog’s eyes, yawning and lip-licking do seem to elicit a favorable response from shy dogs. This is obviously not very scientific since I’m doing a whole bunch of “appeasement” moves at the same time!
Our dogs most often seem to like to yawn–with a huge exhalation of breath–when my face is next to theirs as I wipe their feet after coming in from the fields where they have sampled deer poop. I usually don’t yawn back, but often my eyes do water!
Both Ranger and Finna would yawn if I yawned (as would I when they yawned). I haven’t noticed it with D’Artagnan yet but he’s still in the process of learning that paying attention to me has benefits. Nine weeks ago he wouldn’t even respond to his name, Darth Vader, because it wasn’t relevant to him. Since that name was pretty irrelevant and none of us liked it we renamed him and probably 85% of the time he’ll look at the person saying D’Art or D’Artagnan because his name usually means something good is going to happen. For the first six weeks he never checked in on a walk no matter how long it was. He still doesn’t check in as often as I’d like but he knows it’s often rewarding to check in. All of this is a long way to say I expect given another few months of training and living with me he’ll connect with me enough to yawn when I yawn.
Anecdotally–clearly not a controlled, scientific study–I have been able to elicit yawns from dogs, cats, and horses by yawning (I do a lot of it; I work nights) right in their faces.
Isn’t “yawn” a ludicrous word? Every time I write it I wonder if I’ve spelled it right. And then I yawn again.
Charlotte Kasner says
Empathetic yawning works with horses too – both ways!
My young border collie yawns with frustration sometimes when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do.
Funny, a few years back This American Life had an episode where they talked about contagious yawning and wondered if it applied to dogs, so they tried with one of the reporter’s dogs—and got no response. From that single piece of anecdotal data they decided that dogs don’t catch yawning, and I unquestioningly took it as truth. Silly me! Although I’m fairly certain we tested at the time on my last dog, and she didn’t yawn back. And I’m fairly certain our current dog doesn’t either…although naturally I will try on her today! (I find I’m only very mildly susceptible. I yawned only once at the start of this article, but that might be because I’d just woke up and am reading still in bed. 🙂
Incidentally, that photo of Maggie and Nellie is beyond adorable. Inter-species friendship is my single favorite genre of internet photos.
Minnesota Mary says
This is a great topic! Not only yawns, but lip licking, turning head, sniffing ground are also in the same category of a dog dealing with low level stress. There is an excellent book about this called: On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals, by Turid Rugaas. It’s thin and filled mostly with pictures — an easy read. I recommend it to everyone who adopts a dog that I’ve fostered!
Might it still not be a stress thing? Seeing an owner yawn (a dog sign of stress) is more likely to make the dog yawn (a sign of stress)? Sort of like you’re more likely to get stressed on an airplane if the flight attendant seems panicked than if someone in the next row does? Is that still empathy? ( must be a reason to stress if Mom’s stresses?).
I recently came across this study which says that yawning is a social stress response and not a sign of empathy in dogs. So, I guess more research is needed. Having said that, my one Lab is susceptible to contagious yawning. Here’s a link to the abstract of the study I mentioned.
How timely, just the other day I yawned and my girl yawned back. And I thought, you do love me! We are very close and she’s very soft/sensitive.
She does have another yawn behaviour I’m curious to hear your take on – Every day when I leave for work and before bed she gets a big biscuit. She gets treats at other times throughout the day. But at those two times, she yawns before I hand her the biscuit. I tend to think she’s just being polite, but do wonder if there is something else going on.
Ok….been yawning since the beginning of the post!!
My Beckett and Ruby Rose will yawn after I yawn. We just look at each other and keep the string of yawns going. I like that we are so in tune with each other.
Jenny Haskins says
I am REALLY not a fan of yawning to dogs. In general I see it as a stress response, and we do not need to indicate to our dogs that we are stressed.
I also believe that the main purpose of yawning is to cool the brain to foster sleep.
I also understand that yawning can be caused by too much carbon dioxide
Jenny Haskins says
PS I’ve never noticed contagious yawning in any of my dogs –actually my dogs rarely yawn at all 🙂 I like to think that it is because they are not stressed 🙂
Olive gives one big yawn each night before she flops down to hog the pillow. I try to touch her tongue quickly and lightly before she closes her mouth. She gives me a squint as I chuckle about the childish yet funny tongue touch attempt. I’d hazard a guess she’s not at all stressed due to her melting posture and the fact we do this every night.
When I read out loud, I yawn. A lot.
Jenny Yasi says
So I have my two dogs in the bed, wondering which dog I am going to cuddle, and first one yawns, a casual ho hum, no big deal and then the other one, yeah yawn, me too, no big deal. Super casual. It’s like they are both saying, “It won’t bother ME which dog you choose to snuggle first!” But actually they both want me to call on them.
Another yawn is when my dog is laying on the floor, waiting while I fill the kong. “YAAWWN. Ooh! It’s a bit difficult to wait. But I’m fine, fine, no rush, take your time, I’m not doing anything wrong, I am waiting PERFECTLY!”
Jenny Yasi says
I just finished reading the comments here, and I know there is the view point that yawning is a calming signal — yeah I kinda agree with that — and that it’s a sign of stress — and yeah, I KINDA agree with that. But not all stress is bad stress. I certainly don’t want to live encased in a marshmallow, and my dogs like some excitement, some challenge. I think if people don’t want their dogs to yawn because it looks like a sign of stress, that’s a bit extreme to me. Lol! I don’t mind a good yawn, and I don’t want my life to be so stress free that I am only able to express one perfectly blissful and contented moods. The focus on yawns as signs of stress is exaggerated and not that helpful as there are other signs of stress — dander flaking out for example, distracted sniffing and jumping up — that do show anxiety and yet are largely ignored. I know my dogs live interesting fun adventurous lives, and like me, they yawn for a variety of reasons in a variety of circumstances. Sometimes they are impatient, bored, frustrated, and they yawn. I just tried to trigger a yawn in them and no go.
Susan Brentnall says
I read a book about nonverbal communication in dogs that advocated using yawning to help calm a reactive dog, by Turid Rugass (Calming Signal’s)
I’m curious if they tested the heart rate of the human subjects?
Our dog gets scared when someone yawns. He puts his ears and head down, looks sideways and attempts to move away. He is a rescue. He has been with us for 2.5 years now and is normally a confident, happy dog. We have even been conditioned to hold back our yawns. If we do yawn, we need to go and reassure him immediately.
Humans and pets yawning, very amazing connection
But yawning is also a sign of stress- is this a form of self-soothing, then?