Why Do Dogs Yawn?
This is not an easy question to answer, as there are many reasons why dogs yawn. What about if I change the question and ask “Why do humans yawn?” Most people would probably say, when they are tired but others would perhaps give different answers, for example boredom.
Humans also yawn during times of stress: Perhaps you’ve seen your favourite footballer yawning before a big game. Some researchers believe that the strenuous movements involved in yawning might help make you more alert when feeling sleepy and could help you focus when you are feeling distracted.
We are still waiting for a definitive answer as to why we yawn but there are many theories. Scientifically speaking, the jury is still out. Researchers have looked into its role in respiration, arousal, thermoregulation, and communication. Does yawning increase the oxygen supply to the brain? Is it linked to controlling brain temperature? Does it simply stretch the mouth and throat? Does it keep us alert? Is it a type of communication and is that why, when one person yawns, others respond? Is it a means of synchronising our body clocks?
One thing we do know, is that yawning is very contagious! We often yawn in response to seeing or hearing someone else yawn. Even reading the word “yawn” can make you yawn!
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Are You Yawning Now?
So what about dogs? Dogs yawn for many of the same reasons that people yawn. When he first wakes up in the morning, Fido will, no doubt enjoy a long stretch and a nice wide yawn. Ten pm? That must mean doggy bedtime: time for another yawn! So, if your dog has had a long day or just awoke, is drowsy or fatigued, and yawns, you probably don’t have to look much further for an explanation!
What about contagious yawning? Besides primates, only two species have been shown to yawn contagiously. One of them, perhaps not surprisingly, is the dog (the other is the Australian budgerigar).
As a result of a 2008 study to demonstrate that human yawns are contagious to domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), two possibilities were given for this phenomenon. First, the susceptibility to contagious yawning of dogs may relate to their capacity for empathy. In humans (Platek et al. 2003; Senju et al. 2007) and chimpanzees (Anderson et al. 2004), several studies have suggested that contagious yawning relates to the capacity for empathy, although the mechanism underlying this relationship is still unclear. Dogs have exceptional capacities to decode social signals from humans, possibly as a result of the domestication process. It is, therefore, also possible that they have the capacity for empathy. Alternatively, dogs may have developed the capacity for contagious yawning during past yawning experiences with humans, either by sharing (e.g. tiring/boring) experiences with humans or by observing humans yawn “contagiously” to dogs’ yawns. Second, it is also possible that the dogs’ yawns may have been induced by mildly heightened tension or stress. It’s possible that human yawns are perceived as antagonistic to dogs. Ramiro M Joly-Mascheroni et al. 2008. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2008.0333
As mentioned above, a dog may yawn if he’s tired, but it can also be an indicator of stress. If a dog is feeling ill at ease with a situation they will often yawn. Yawning may help to displace stress or inner conflict with a safe, neutral behaviour. It is also a form of communication, often used to diffuse a threatening situation and stop it from escalating.
Remember, dogs primarily use body language to diffuse conflict and tell others about their harmless intentions: They use “canine communication” when they are feeling conflicted or stressed, in an attempt to neutralise the situation or calm themselves. The yawn is actually one of the first “words” dogs display as very young pups. When picked up, most young puppies will yawn. Unfortunately most humans do not understand why their dog is yawning and do not realise that they could be contributing to their dog’s stress.
Does your dog yawn in a novel situation? Is the yawn accompanied by other signs of stress such as lowered ears, squinting eyes, and tense muscles? If a dog yawns around an unfamiliar situation, dog or person, while displaying other signs of unease, such as a “tense” or “tucked” body, it’s time to increase the distance! Move away from whatever is causing the reaction. Your dog is obviously feeling stressed rather than sleepy! This type of yawning is often referred to as a “stress signal”. It is, however, also known as a “calming signal”, as it is your dog’s attempt to “calm”/diffuse a situation.
According to Turid Rugaas calming signals the art of survival, dogs may yawn when someone bends over them; when you sound angry; when there´s shouting and quarrelling in the family; when at the vet´s; when someone is walking directly at the dog; when the dog is excited with happiness and anticipation; when you ask the dog to do something he doesn´t feel like doing; when your training sessions are too long/too difficult; when you have said NO for doing something you disapprove of, and in many other situations. Threatening signals (walking straight at the dog; reaching for the dog; bending over the dog; staring into the dog´s eyes; fast movements…) will always cause the dog to use a calming signal. There are about thirty different calming signals, so even when many dogs will yawn, other dogs may use another calming signal. Here are a few other “calming signals”: a lip/nose lick/tongue flick; turning away/turning of the head; play bow; sniffing the ground; walking slowly; freezing; sitting down; lifting one paw; walking in a curve… All of these behaviours need to be viewed in context as they can obviously also occur in other situations.
If you want to learn more about calming signals I recommend:
My tip: Learn to “read” your dog so that you can understand what he is telling you. Be aware that much of a dog’s language or communication techniques are subtle.
The final reason dogs yawn? If you “capture” it and put it on cue! Short video showing Jambo yawning on cue.
Did you manage to read the whole article without yawning or did the temptation to yawn just prove too irresistible? What about your dog? Did they respond by yawning too?
The author assumes no liability for the content of this article. This advice is not a substitute for a proper consultation with a vet and is only intended as a guide.
Trainer for, Jambo – The Staffy Bull Terrier Trick Dog. First “EVER” Staffordshire Bull Terrier to be a Crowned Trick Master Champion. for more details click the link HERE.