Dogs Respond More To Owner's Yawn
August 8, 2013

Dogs Find Owner’s Yawn More Contagious Than A Stranger’s

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Many dogs and their owners have a bond that transcends words, and a new study shows that canines find yawns from their owners more contagious than yawns from strangers.

The study, which included 25 volunteers and their dogs, found that the pets were not only more responsive to their owners' yawns - many of them could tell the difference between a fake and actual yawn. To see if the dogs perceived the yawn as a sign of stress, study researchers from the University of Tokyo monitored the animals' pulse for signs of an increased heart rate.

"Our study suggests that contagious yawning in dogs is emotionally connected in a way similar to humans," said study co-author Teresa Romero, a behavioral scientist at the university. "Although our study cannot determine the exact underlying mechanism operative in dogs, the subjects' physiological measures taken during the study allowed us to counter the alternative hypothesis of yawning as a distress response."

While a Siberian husky and a German shepherd mix were the study's most frequent yawners, an 11-year-old miniature poodle yawned the least. More than half the dogs in the study, which was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE , did not yawn at all.

In their conclusion, the study authors noted that dogs do not usually contagiously yawn in response to each other. They also theorized that the selective breeding of dogs over millenia has specifically attuned canines to take cues from humans.

"During domestication, dogs have become selected to maintain attention towards humans, which seems to be critical for dog-human communication and social learning," the authors wrote. "Thus, it is possible that dogs are predisposed to respond more intensively, or only, to human social cues rather than (cues from other breeds)."

Previous research has shown that humans yawn in response to another person's yawn. Between 45 and 60 percent of healthy adults experience contagious yawning that some experts say is a form of release, while others say it plays a role in communication and empathy. People with empathy disorders are less likely to respond to another person's yawn, studies have shown.

The latest canine study builds on research published in May which found dogs will yawn even when they only hear the sound of someone yawning. According to the study, about half of all dogs will yawn in response to an audio recording.

A researcher in that study, Joanna Bessa of Porto University, said that the dogs were more likely to 'catch' a yawn from a recording made by someone they knew.

"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.

The authors of the earlier study noted that dogs are very good at replicating human empathetic behaviors in an attempt to curry favor. While these behaviors might appear to come from the same mental processes, exhibiting them does not necessarily mean that the canines are working on a human level of understanding, the researchers said.