Dogs May Show Empathy With Humans When It Comes To Yawning
May 14, 2012

Dogs May Show Empathy With Humans When It Comes To Yawning

Lawrence LeBlond for

Do you ever notice that when you yawn, those who are around you tend to yawn as well? And vice versa? Well that contagious expression even crosses the species barrier, as dogs are also capable of catching yawns from humans.

But why dogs catch our yawns has been a mystery, until now. A new study has found that dogs yawn even when they only hear the sound of us yawning, the strongest evidence yet that our canine companions may be able to understand us.

The study, presented at the National Ethology Congress in Lisbon, and to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Animal Cognition, found that nearly half of all dogs yawned when played a recording of a human being making such a noise.

However, the researchers, led by Karine Silva, from the University of Porto, Portugal, said that while dogs can catch yawns from humans, it seems to work much better when there is a bond between the dog and their owner.

“These results suggest that dogs have the capacity to empathize with humans,” Silva told The Telegraph.

Silva and colleagues selected 29 dogs that had lived with their owners for at least six months. To reduce anxiety, the study was performed in familiar rooms in the dogs´ homes and in the presence of a known person but with no visual contact with their owners.

The researchers first recorded the volunteer humans yawning -- to help induce natural yawning, the volunteers listened to prerecorded yawns played though headphones. The researchers then played the yawns of their owners to them, as well as yawns from a stranger and from a computer-reversed yawn, used as controls for the study.

Each dog heard all of the sounds in two sessions, each carried out seven days apart. During the sessions, the team measured the number of elicited yawns in dogs in response to the sounds from known and unknown people.

About 42 percent (12 out of 29) of the dogs yawned when they heard the recorded human yawn during the sessions. Silva and her colleagues found that the dogs yawned five times more when they heard the yawns of humans they knew as opposed to the control sounds.

Study coauthor Joanna Bessa, from Oporto University's Abel Salazar Institute of Biomedical Sciences, said the findings were interesting. “The dogs yawned more when they heard humans they knew yawning, like their owners, as opposed to people they didn´t know, and the possibility that dogs could have some empathy with humans came about,” she said.

She added that the “positive results” concluded that there “there was contagion by the dogs.”

This study tells us something new about the mechanisms underlying contagious yawning in dogs,” Evan McLean, a PhD student at Duke University´s Canine Cognition Center in Durham, North Carolina, who was not involved in the study, told Science Now. “As in humans, dogs can catch this behavior using their ears alone.”

A previous study by researchers from University of London´s Birkbeck College found that dogs mimic yawning nearly 75 percent of the time when they see humans doing it.

Ádám Miklósi, an animal behavior expert at the Eötvös Loránd University, in Budapest, who was skeptical of the latest research, said previous studies found dogs can look guilty even when they were not.

“Using behaviors as indicators will only show some similarity in behavior,” said Miklósi. “But it will never tell us whether canine empathy, whatever this is, matches human empathy.”

“Dogs can simulate very well different forms of social interest that could mislead people to think they are controlled by the same mental processes, but they may not always understand the complexity of human behavior,” he explained.

The study authors noted that besides people and dogs, contagious yawning has been observed in gelada baboons, stump-tail macaques and chimpanzees.