What Makes a Dog Yawn?
Yawns are “contagious,” meaning that if you see someone else yawn, you are more likely to yawn too. Dogs may do this as well, and not just after seeing another dog yawn. If you yawn and your dog is nearby and paying attention, there is a good chance that it will stretch and enjoy the extra inhale/exhale.
There are many different theories as to why people, dogs and other animals yawn, not to mention why this behavior is contagious. Compelling evidence suggests that yawning helps cool off the brain. Similar to the fan turning on in your computer when it reaches a certain temperature, it’s thought that the brain may need extra air during particular times and situations.
“Brains are like computers,” says Andrew Gallup, a researcher in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. Gallup led a study concerning yawning that was published a few years ago in the journal Animal Behaviour. He adds that brains “operate most efficiently when cool, and physical adaptations have evolved to allow maximum cooling of the brain.”
Since you and your dog share the same living environment, it makes sense that your pet would copy your yawning. This copying likely happens as a sort of knee-jerk reaction, just like you might yawn when a co-worker does, not even thinking about your behavior.
Another theory is that yawning shows empathy and therefore helps build social connections. A recent study conducted at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University determined that chimpanzees yawn more after watching familiar chimps yawn, as opposed to watching strangers.
“The idea is that yawns are contagious for the same reason that smiles, frowns and other facial expressions are contagious,” write researchers Matthew Campbell and Frans de Waal. “Our results support the idea that contagious yawning can be used as a measure of empathy, because the biases we observed were similar to empathy biases previously seen in humans.”
Although the Yerkes study focused on primates, findings could most likely apply to dogs as well, since they also exhibit contagious yawning. So the next time you let out a good, relaxed yawn, take a look at your dog and see how it reacts. If your dog yawns, it’s a good sign that your pet is paying attention to you and is working to maintain a connection.