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Neuroscience For Kids

Dogs Catch Sticks, Balls and...Yawns
September 17, 2008

Do you yawn when you see other people yawn? If you do, you are one of the many people who "catch" yawns. New research suggests that many dogs are susceptible to contagious yawning and that they can catch yawns by watching people.

Researchers in the School of Psychology at the University of London found that 21 of 29 (72%) dogs caught yawns after watching a person yawn repeatedly for five minutes. None of the dogs yawned after they watched the person make non-yawning facial movements.

On average:

  1. The dogs yawned 1.9 times.
  2. It took the dogs 99 seconds to yawn.
  3. The person had to yawn 4.5 times to get the dog to yawn.
  4. There were no differences in yawning behavior in male or female dogs.
  5. The age of the dog did not affect yawning

It is not clear why most of the dogs yawned after watching a person yawn. People take far less time to yawn after seeing someone else yawn and usually seeing a person yawn only once will cause another person to yawn. Nevertheless, the researchers suggest that the results of their experiment point to a dog's "capacity for empathy." In other words, perhaps dogs can understand a person's state of mind or emotional condition. Some animals, such as monkeys, yawn as a form of non-verbal communication that signals tension. So, perhaps the dogs yawn because they feel stressed.

Dogs may be more tuned in to humans, and thus that is why they yawn after we yawn. Future experiments to see if dogs yawn after watching other dogs yawn may reveal more about contagious yawning. How would you design such an experiment?

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