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Contagious yawning in dogs
Empathy may cause it

It’s been known for a long time that yawning is contagious in various species of primates, including humans. (It’s actually highly contagious. If it were as easy to catch a cold or malaria, it would be all but impossible to stay healthy.) In recent years, the contagious nature of yawns between dogs and people has been a research subject of considerable interest.

Studies have demonstrated that dogs can “catch” yawns from people, which is fascinating enough given that we are two different species. Now, a new study called “Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation” suggests that human yawns are contagious to dogs by auditory means. (Translation: Dogs will yawn in response to just hearing a human yawn.)

The study was an attempt to demonstrate that contagious yawning in dogs is different than that same phenomenon in primates, but the data say otherwise. In primates, yawn contagion indicates that the observer has empathy for the yawner. It was thought that in dogs, yawns were induced by a hard-wired behavioral pattern that was exhibited in response to a releasing stimulus. However, the observation that dogs yawned more in response the sound of familiar yawns than to the sounds of unfamiliar yawns suggests that empathy may play a role in the contagion.

Reading and writing about this subject has given me a case of the yawns, along with the dog right next to me. Did you yawn while reading this, and if so, did your dog follow suit?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

photo by DaveFayram/flickr

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