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The yawning dog

A study published in the journal Biology Letters last week found that human yawns are contagious to dogs — the contagious yawn being a behavior once thought limited to humans and chimps.

In a study performed at London’s Birbeck College, 72 percent of 29 dogs tested yawned after observing a person doing so — a clear sign that dogs read human cues.

(The possibility that they were just really bored with the experiment was not addressed.)

Atsushi Senju and colleagues at Birkbeck College say mimicking human yawns is a sign of empathy. What’s surprising about dogs doing it is that empathy is not usually found in animals without self-awareness, which scientists say dogs lack.

Each of the 29 dogs watched a researcher perform a large yawn and then, in the control portion of the experiment, watched the same researcher merely open his mouth. No dogs yawned in the control portion. When the researcher yawned, dogs yawned contagiously 72 percent of the time, which is an even higher rate than reported in humans or chimps.

Scientists believe dogs lack a sense of self because they generally don’t recognize themselves in a mirror, as humans and chimps, dolphins and sometimes — when scientists can find a mirror large enough — elephants, do.

A sense of self is considered a prerequisite for understanding the feelings of others, (though it’s always seemed to me that too large of one can preclude that possibility). In my non-scientific view, it’s precisely that combination — the lack of self-awareness and abundance of empathy — that makes dogs so appealing.

But that’s just — Y-a-a-a-a-w-n-n — my opinion.


Comment from Marie
Time August 11, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Dogs yawn at each other as a calming signal. If you want to send you dog a silent message that things are ok and they shouldn’t be getting upset (about whatever) – yawn at them. They do it to each other naturally and it works. For other calming signals dogs give each other, check out Calming Signals by Turid Rugass.

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