Every dog owner has had this experience: Your dog stares into your eyes as if desperate to figure out how you’re feeling. Then those big brown eyes fill with what can only be described as sympathy.
Your pup feels your pain. And a new study shows that dogs yawn after noticing their owners yawn — and even when they cannot even see but only hear their owners yawn.
Dogs tend to yawn upon hearing any human yawn — but they really yawn upon hearing their owners do so, as if acutely attuned to that particular arc of sound.
This study reinforces theories about the natural empathy that dogs have for their human friends. Such empathy is a very rare trait in the animal kindgdom — as is yawning itself. Very few animals yawn, “and only dogs cross the species barrier,” according to a story appearing this week in Science Magazine.
Conducted by researchers at Portugal’s University of Porto and set to be published in July in the scholarly Animal Cognition journal, the study found that “canines yawned five times more often when they heard humans they knew yawning.”
According to lead researcher Karine Silva, the close human-animal bond — developed through 15,000 years of domestication — “may have fostered cross-species empathy” as manifested by this phenomenon of “contagious yawning.”
Her team was inspired to perform the study based on previous studies showing that yawns are also “contagious” between humans and between humans and apes.
From the abstract for the article: “Dogs’ capacity to ‘catch’ human yawns has recently attracted the attention of researchers … following recent studies suggesting that contagion yawning in humans, and some other primates, is empathy-related. … The present study explored the ‘contagion-only’ hypothesis by testing whether the mere sound of a human yawn can be sufficient to elicit yawning in dogs, in a way that is unaffected by social-emotional factors. Unexpectedly, results showed an interesting interplay between contagion and social effects. Not only were dogs found to catch human yawns, but they were also found to yawn more at familiar than unfamiliar yawns.
“Although not allowing for conclusive inferences about the mechanisms underlying contagious yawning in dogs, this study provides first data that renders plausible empathy-based, emotionally connected, contagious yawning in these animals.”