Dogs communicate in many different ways. They tell you a lot with their body language and can speak volumes with a bark, whimper, whine, or growl. Their yawns also tell stories.
A yawn may be one of the first messages a dog sends. Most one-day-old puppies will yawn when picked up. We don’t know for sure, but they are probably expressing stress at being handled by someone other than their mother.
Older dogs also frequently express stress by yawning. For example, a pup may deal with his nervousness when sitting in the waiting room at the veterinarian’s office by yawning repeatedly. Some dogs yawn when they experience stress traveling in a car, being kenneled, or hearing loud noises including storms and fireworks. Not all dogs will be stressed or will yawn in these situations, but many do.
On the flip side, yawning can be a calming signal in dog language. Turid Rugass, noted Norwegian dog trainer, coined the term calming signals in her book, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals (2005), to describe the ways dogs use body language to calm a situation down with another dog or with a person. Yawning is one of those calming signals.
A dog can feel uncomfortable due to a simple movement like a human bending over him. If you are playing hard with your dog or you are training him, a yawn could mean that he is frustrated and his patience is wearing thin. Pay attention. A yawn in this situation is probably telling you that he has had enough. Get the message and take a break.
However, a yawn can send many other messages. A dog may yawn in anticipation of a fun activity like a walk with his favorite person. Boredom can also trigger a yawn in a dog just like it does in people. Of course, fatigue can prompt yawning in a sleepy dog. That’s normal for pups and people. Sometimes a yawn is just a yawn.
There are other reasons for a yawn. You have probably “caught” a yawn from another person who was yawning. Psychologists call this contagious yawning. This phenomenon has been demonstrated in birds, bats, apes, and most vertebrate species. One study found that chimpanzees could catch contagious yawning by watching videos of other chimps yawning. Yes, dogs also experience contagious yawning.
It is not surprising that a dog can stimulate contagious yawning in another dog. What is unusual are studies that show dogs can catch the yawns of sleepy people. Researcher Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni, a psychologist at Birkbeck, University of London noted that his Labrador immediately yawned when he yawned. He found that dogs of friends did the same.
Joly-Mascheroni and collaborators (Biology Letters, 2008) set out to determine if human yawns are possibly contagious to dogs. Twenty-nine dogs participated in two testing sessions lasting five minutes each. In one session the dog observed as a human yawned. In the second session, the dog viewed a person mimicking a yawn by opening his mouth.
Twenty one dogs (72%) yawned when people yawned, but none of them yawned when observing people opening their mouth pretending to yawn. The researchers are not sure why dogs start yawning when we do. They do suggest that it indicates they have a fundamental form of empathy for humans.
Pay attention to what your dog is telling you when he yawns. He may be telling you that he is nervous, stressed, excited, or bored. Possibly he is trying to calm a situation. Perhaps he is just catching your yawn. Learn more about your canine companion and how to improve their quality of life by visiting NuVet Labs.
C. Sue Furman, Ph.D. spent 40 years at several major universities including the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences teaching future physicians and veterinarians and conducting research involving nerve and muscle. Learn more about Dr. C. Sue Furman here.