New Study Links Dog Yawning to Empathy

January 2, 2014

By Linda Cole

Scientists have long been interested in doing studies about our canine friends. Recent studies have explored how the canine mind works and how important body language is to them. This new research has found that dogs, like humans, will often yawn when they see someone else yawning. Researchers also believe yawning is one way that dogs show us empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability to identify with the feelings, attitudes or thoughts of someone else. Feeling another person’s pain is one of the requirements used to describe sentient beings. Many scientists have come to the conclusion that there are some non-human species, especially mammals and birds, that do have an awareness of self. Of course, people who have a strong bond with their pet have known this all along. Our understanding of canines continues to open our minds and hearts to the unique relationship we share with them.

The empathy of dogs may not be as refined as ours, but when you see the compassion of a mother dog nursing an orphaned squirrel or other wild animal alongside her pups, or a dog who refuses to leave his injured four-legged or two-legged, friend, their actions show a concern for others. Empathy isn’t something that can be taught. It’s what causes us to laugh when someone else laughs, or cry when we watch a love story on TV or see something bad happening to someone. Anyone who has ever rescued a dog or cat from a bad situation on the street did so because of empathy.

Like us, dogs yawn when they are tired, but yawning is also used to show stress or discomfort. Our canine friends use a yawn as a stress reliever when they are dealing with frustration or excitement. A training session that’s gone on too long might elicit a yawn from your dog that says, “Can we take a break? I’ve had enough for now” or “I don’t understand what you want.” A fearful dog yawns in a stressful situation to try to calm himself down. A dog waiting his turn on an agility course sometimes yawns to show his excitement.

A group of scientists wanted to find out if yawning is contagious for dogs, like it is for humans. Although yawning in response to someone else isn’t something we all do, contagious yawning will garner return yawns from about 45-60% of adults. According to the researchers, contagious yawns are “associated with activations in neural networks responsible for empathy and social skills.” What they found was that dogs are more likely to yawn when they observe someone they have an emotional attachment with doing it.

The study was done at the University of Tokyo by animal behavior researcher Teresa Romero and a team of colleagues. They took 25 dogs of different breeds, their owners, and someone the pet didn’t know, and watched what the dogs did when watching their owner and the stranger yawn. A heart-rate monitor was used to record stress levels in the dogs to make sure they weren’t yawning to relieve stress.

As might be expected, the dogs yawned more often with their owner than with the stranger. Most of the dogs could also tell the difference between a real yawn and a fake one. The researchers believe that the response by the dogs confirms the bond we share does indeed go both ways. Dogs have a sensitivity to our actions and express empathy. There was no measurable increase in stress levels during the experiment, which proved the yawning wasn’t related to anxiety or stress.

A breakdown of the breeds found that a male Siberian Husky and a female German Shepherd mix had the most yawns (five and six) of the 25 dogs tested. An 11 year old Miniature Poodle yawned twice. A Labrador Retriever, one Chihuahua and one Maltese were among a handful of dogs that fell for fake yawns, and 14 other dogs possibly need a little more TLC from their owners because they didn’t yawn at all. An interesting study would be to test dogs to determine if some breeds and mixed breeds are more empathetic than others.

So pay attention to your dog the next time you’re tired, but want to stay up to see the end of a movie. If your dog yawns along with you, it’s a good sign you have a close emotional bond with him, and he’s showing you his empathy.

Top photo by hehaden
Bottom photo by Randy Robertson

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