Posted on Monday, November 12th, 2012

Can Contagious Yawning Leap the Species Barrier? Ask Your Dog


There have been a lot of debates taking up cable, network TV, internet and even radio airwaves of late. But whatever your political leanings, you’ve probably got an opinion about one of the most hotly contested topics in recent news – do dogs follow our lead with yawning? A new study published online in the journal, Animal Cognition, has posited the argument that dogs aren’t all that different than kids when it comes to contagious yawning.

While puppies are immune to catching yawns, older dogs may do just that. As The Huffington Post article, Dog Yawning is Learned as Puppies Grow Older reports, just like with children who begin to unconsciously echo others’ yawns around age 4 when their brains become more adept at recognizing and understanding the emotions of those around them, empathetic dogs do something similar.

Elainie Alenkaer Madsen and Tomas Persson ofLundUniversityinSwedenset out to test 35 pet dogs between the ages of 4 and 14 months, purposefully choosing puppies so as to mimic the human trait of empathy being accumulated with age. Each of the 35 subjects was put through a duo of experiments – one in which they played with their owners who were asked to fake yawn-like expressions and a second in which the owners were asked to do more convincing (and probably occasionally real) yawns. The process was repeated the next day, except that this time the researchers, not the owners, would interact with the pets.

You’re probably yawning yourself by now and eager to find out what Madsen and Persson discovered. According to the researchers, overall, 69 percent of the dogs echoed the human yawns, but dogs younger than 7 months showed almost no inclination to do so – sometimes not yawning at all and sometimes not doing so until minutes later. About half the puppies yawned in response to the obviously fake yawns, but not a single grown dog did so. Just as interestingly, it didn’t matter whether the owner or a researcher engaged with the pet – yawns were forthcoming (or not) despite that.

As the eminent and respected periodical, The Atlantic put it, we’re all happy to see someone “acknowledge the controversy over contagious yawning and draw out its import to empathy research at length” – especially when cute dogs are involved. Hopefully those test subjects got plenty of dog treats. This content post is provided by the pet experts at Hartz.