Yawn next to your dog, and she may do the same. Though it seems simple, this contagious behavior is actually quite remarkable: Only a few animals do it, and only dogs cross the species barrier. Now a new study finds that dogs yawn even when they only hear the sound of us yawning, the strongest evidence yet that canines may be able to empathize with us.
Besides people and dogs, contagious yawning has been observed in gelada baboons, stump-tail macaques, and chimpanzees. Humans tend to yawn more with friends and acquaintances, suggesting that “catching” someone’s yawn may be tied to feelings of empathy. Similarly, some studies have found that dogs tend to yawn more after watching familiar people yawning. But it is unclear whether the canine behavior is linked to empathy as it is in people. One clue might be if even the mere sound of a human yawn elicited yawning in dogs.
To that end, scientists at the University of Porto in Portugal recruited 29 dogs, all of whom had lived for at least 6 months with their owners. To reduce anxiety, the study was performed in familiar rooms in the dogs’ homes and in the presence of a known person but with no visual contact with their owners.
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