Today we will help you to work out what’s making your dog yawn! We’ll look at the reasons why dogs yawn, and separate the dog yawning facts from the fiction.
Dog yawning is an important part of canine communication. Dogs yawn when they are tired, just like humans, but they also yawn when they are anxious or stressed. Some scientists also think dogs yawn because they have seen or heard other dogs or people yawning. However this is still a controversial hypothesis, on the cutting edge of our understanding. Here’s how to work out what is causing your dog to yawn today!
Why Do Dogs Yawn?
Dogs’ yawns are amazing. They never try to suppress a yawn, or worry about hiding it behind a paw to be polite. Just like human babies and other animals, when dogs yawn it’s a wide-open, uninhibited, full-on jaw-stretch.
It’s hard not to be envious really. But did you know those yawns can communicate different messages about what your dog is feeling? Let’s count them now.
Dog Yawn Meaning 1: “I’m Tired!”
Just like us, dogs often yawn right before bed and just after they wake up. But funnily enough, scientists still don’t know for sure why it is that we yawn when we’re tired.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s probably nothing to do with increasing the amount of oxygen in our bloodstream. It might be to do with cooling the blood circulating to our brain, or it might have originated as a type of non-verbal communication. But however it arose, fatigue is just one reason for yawning that lots of mammals have in common.
Dog Yawn Meaning 2: “I’m Worried”
Dog stress yawns are one way they use body language to express anxiety or nerves. You can recognise which of your dog’s yawns are stress yawns by reading their context – the other things going on at the same time.
Sometimes stressful environments are obvious – like kennels, or the waiting room at the vet. Other times you might need to look a bit harder for what’s triggering your dog’s nerves – maybe a type of person or vehicle he hasn’t seen before, or an unfamiliar noise. You can also look out for other stress-linked behaviors, like:
- nose licking
- lowered ears
- paw lift
- attempting to hide
- lowered tail
- jumping up at walls and people
If you see any of these actions as well, it’s a sign that your dog is yawning because they’re worried (but you’ll still have to work out why).
Dog Yawn Meaning 3: “I Saw Another Dog Yawn First”
Have you ever seen someone yawn, and been unable to stop yourself yawning too? This is called ‘reflexive’ or ‘contagious’ yawning. Scientists understand very little about why we catch contagious yawns.
But they do know that the same phenomenon exists in lots of other mammals, including primates, wolves, and dogs. So if you live in a multi-dog household, or you’re in the middle of socialising with other dogs, it could be that your dog yawned because he saw another dog do it first.
Dog Yawn Meaning 4: “I Saw You Yawn First”
One of the most interesting and hotly disputed areas of dog yawning research at the moment is whether dogs can catch human yawns.
The idea was first studied in 2008, and in that experiment it looked like the dogs taking part did catch human yawns. Later studies replicated those results, and even appeared to refine them by ruling out factors like situational stress as the cause of the dogs’ yawning.
Portuguese and Japanese studies in 2012 and 2013 went further still, and seemed to demonstrate that dogs are more likely to catch yawns from familiar people than strangers. This was significant because it suggested dogs are capable of a rudimentary form of empathy.
The Latest Dog Yawning Research
But many of these results have been contradicted by more recent studies, including a Hungarian study in 2019. In fact that study went so far as to say that there isn’t any evidence for contagious yawning in dogs at all, and situational stress is a more likely explanation.
So to cut a long story short, we’re still a long way off knowing whether dogs can catch yawning from humans. And if they do, whether it also has any of the hallmarks of empathy. But settling those questions once and for all in the future might go some way to explaining exactly how and when empathy evolved.
Why Does My Dog Yawn So Much?
If you’re reading this because your dog yawns a lot, you might also be worried that your dog is yawning excessively. In rare circumstances, excessive yawning can be a symptom of an underlying disease in humans, for example multiple sclerosis.
However there is no recorded evidence that yawning a lot is a symptom of any disease in dogs. A dog who yawns a lot is more likely to be experiencing frequent stress. Observe them for other signs of anxiety, and also watch what goes on around them. You might spot something specific happening immediately before every yawn – this is likely to be the thing which is making them feel anxious.
Why Do Dogs Yawn When You Cuddle Them?
When dogs yawn after a cuddle, it’s because they feel uncomfortable. It’s a way of telling you that they didn’t like what happened. This might seem at odds with your dog’s personality. Especially if you’ve always considered them a bit of a cuddle bunny.
And it’s true, lots of dogs love to snuggle into their person for a nap or a relax. But if you get down on their level to initiate a big embrace, you might notice they shake or yawn right after.
That’s because wrapping your arms around someone to hug them isn’t a normal part of doggy body language. And being on the receiving end of a hug makes them tense. Actions like shaking and yawning defuse that tension. If your dog always yawns when your stroke or cuddle them, try letting them approach you for affection on their own terms instead.
What Does It Mean When A Dog Yawns? A Summary
We hope you’ve enjoyed our potted history of dog yawning. You’ve probably noticed there’s lots we still don’t know, and many questions still to answer.
When your dog yawns it could be because they’re tired, anxious, or they’ve seen another dog or person yawning. You’ll need to read the context of the yawn to work out which one it is.
If your dog keeps yawning and you’re worried about it, ask a professional behaviorist to spend some time observing them and help you identify the trigger.
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References & Further Reading
- Ramiro et al, 2008. Dogs catch human yawns, Animal Behavior.
- O’Hara & Reeve, 2011. A test of the yawning contagion and emotional connectedness hypothesis in dogs, Animal Behavior.
- Madson & Perrson, 2012. Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs: first evidence for social modulation, Animal Cognition.
- Madson & Perrson, 2013. Contagious yawning in domestic dog puppies: the effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on low-level imitation in dogs, Animal Cognition.
- Romero et al, 2013. Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy, Plos One.
- Silva et al, 2013. Familiarity-connected or stress-based contagious yawning in domestic dogs? Some additional data, Animal Cognition.
- Romero et al, 2014. Social Modulation of Contagious Yawning in Wolves, Plos One.
- Kis et al, 2019. The effect of oxytocin on yawning by dogs exposed to human yawns, Applied Animal Behavior Science.
- Mariti et al, 2015. The assessment of dog welfare in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic, Animal Welfare.
- Dog Communication and Body Language, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, 2014.
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