Dogs Catch Yawns From Their Owners. Does That Mean They Empathize with Us?

By Valerie Ross | May 15, 2012 1:45 pm

One sleepy person can start a bout of contagious yawning that quickly spreads through a room. But a new study suggests the effect may not be limited to the room’s human inhabitants: Dogs can “catch” yawns from people, the study found—especially their owners, hinting that pooches may empathize with familiar people.

When listening to recordings of people yawning, 12 of the 29 dogs in the study yawned themselves. It made a big difference, however, whom they heard: The dogs yawned more than four times as much when they heard their owner yawn as when they heard as a stranger.

Earlier work has suggested a link between contagious yawning and empathy. Humans and chimps both yawn more when friends and acquaintances yawn than when strangers yawn, and people who don’t have much insight into what others are feeling—such as very young children and people with autism—don’t seem to catch contagious yawns. This is some of the strongest evident yet that dogs—humans’ constant companions for 15,000 years—may be able to empathize with us. But a yawn alone can’t tell us what’s going on in a dog’s brain, or its heart of hearts. A similar behavior doesn’t necessarily mean a similar emotion underlying it: What looks like empathy could be something simpler, or something else entirely.

[via ScienceNOW]

Image courtesy of Bruce Fingerhood / Flickr Creative Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
  • Revereche

    The extremely social nature of dogs should corroborate this.

  • floodmouse

    “What looks like empathy could be something simpler, or something else entirely.” – I’ve noticed this a lot when dealing with my coworkers, and other (human) social pretenders. Expressions of empathy can be either a knee-jerk herd mentality reaction, or an attempt to manipulate the situation. I personally have confidence that “dog empathy” is more reliably empathic than the human variety, since most dogs have never learned to lie . . .

    I continue to mock “objective scientists” who try to pretend that other mammals can’t share “human” prerogatives. I still believe this is a carryover by recovering Christians, who were taught to believe that humans were special, and not a truly objective scientific point-of-view. Any animals with as much shared DNA as humans and dogs are bound to have a similar underlying emotional matrix. Sure, there will be variations, but that doesn’t mean there are no legitimate similarities.

  • Chispa

    Does this mean that dogs have mirror neurons that coordinate with those of humans? Probably. Why not? Contemporary science is rediscovering what ancient tribes and many country folk already know; and validating it as real by slapping a Latin term on the concept.

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