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Posted on Sun, Dec 2, 2012 : 6 a.m.

Is yawning contagious when it comes to dogs? A recent study delves into how age affects the behavior

By Lorrie Shaw

Surely you've had this experience: You can be in any setting where other people are surrounding you, and it happens — a yawn. And as we all know, it's contagious!

The funny thing is, that holds true for dogs as well. But not all canines — puppies under the age of seven months seem to be unaffected by contagious yawning.

While the development of contagious yawning has been studied widely in human children, one recent study was the first to investigate how it develops in the canine species.

The study, conducted by researchers at Lund University in Sweden included 35 dogs that were between the ages of 4 and 14 months.

After engaging the dogs in periods of play and cuddling and then observing their responses when a human repeatedly yawned or gaped or did nothing, Elainie Alenkær Madsen, PhD, and Tomas Persson, PhD — who lead the study — discovered that only dogs above seven months of age exhibited contagious yawning.

Sixty-nine percent of the dogs yawned in response to humans that yawned, which coincided with the results of a study done in 2008 that examined if dogs experience contagious yawning.

The behavior (not to be confused with tension yawning) as it's been studied in humans, baboons and chimpanzees isn't related to being bored or being tired — is believed to be linked to empathy.

In Lund University's study, published in Springer's journal Animal Cognition, this seemed to be the same for canines.

Empathy is a type of development that is typical in humans, and we have a tendency to fall under the spell of yawn contagion around the age of 4, about the same time we develop other cognitive abilities like being able to pick up on others' emotions with increased success.

Because contagious yawning may be an empathetic response, the results of the study seem to suggest that empathy may develop slowly over the first year of a canine's life.

One interesting aspect of the study revealed that while primates and adult humans seem to have a tendency to yawn contagiously more often with those whom they have close emotional bonds, young puppies do not seem to be swayed by that. It's only after they've had a chance to grow into adult dogs that they may acquire that particular behavior as well.

Additionally, about half of the dogs responded to yawning with a reduction in stimulation — so much so that the experimenter needed to keep some dogs from falling asleep.

Catch a bit of the footage of the study in the clip below.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for and is a professional pet sitter. Connect with her on Google + or e-mail her directly.


Linda Diane Feldt

Sun, Dec 2, 2012 : 7:25 p.m.

Turid Ruggas has a whole other take on dog yawns - she identifies them as calming signals. Her books and video course were amazing to me, and I have absolutely used calming signals with my dogs. It seems odd not to include that research in this post. It gives yawning as well as lip licking and blinking a whole other meaning. Pretty amazing actually. I hope you'll do a follow up on her work that has been confirmed by many dog trainers.


Mon, Dec 3, 2012 : 2:48 p.m.

After reading this yesterday. I sat with my dog for an hour or so and got him to yawn several times. I found it to be very amusing. I also faked a sad face and a cry and he actually thought something was very wrong. He came tome and started licking where ever he could. Then wi did a little game of lip licking and he followed me through that as well. I never realized how many visual cues my dog takes from me. I know one loud "HEY!" gets him to stop when he is into some kind of mischief. He runs like a thief sometimes taking whatever it is he is playing with under my bed with him.

Lorrie Shaw

Sun, Dec 2, 2012 : 8:21 p.m.

Linda Diane: Sure, yawning in canines has been linked to being nervous or stressed. In reviewing the study and the video footage, it doesn't look to me that either dog felt ill-at-ease at all. They looked attentive, relaxed and receptive. Obviously, this study was highly controlled - as it should have been since the researchers were trying to hone in on reactions of said canines after they observed a human yawning. Having said that, does that mean that every dog would respond that way? Of course not. Each social situation that a dog is in will affect their response, whether it's something that they can control, or in the case of the dogs in the study, what reactions they can't control. If the piece centered on why dogs yawn and body language cues as a whole, or on a specific behavioral problem, I would have certainly included other research by a qualified behaviorist. In this case, I didn't feel that it was necessary. Future posts will certainly warrant that. I have heard of Ruggas' work and do appreciate her work. I can get behind those who advocate for positive reinforcement methods. She is one of many in the field of canine training who tout the importance of understanding lip licking, yawning and other "language" that we need to pay attention to. Thanks for chiming in and I'm glad that you have found Ruggas' methods helpful in your family.