Research

A new study says human yawns are contagious to dogs but that may not mean what we think it means

If you have a pet dog, you’ve probably seen it happen first-hand: You let out a yawn, and then your dog, looking at you, does the same. 

A scientific study published Wednesday examined the phenomenon, confirming that human yawning is contagious to dogs and expanding the body of research on the subject. The team examined prior data from six studies and a total of 257 dogs. 

Researchers have proposed a new hypothesis: contagious yawning is a reflection of empathy. If a person (or a dog) catches a yawn, according to this hypothesis, it means they feel some degree of empathy for the original yawner.

But the latest study actually rejects the empathy-theory, finding no clear link between empathy and contagious yawning.

The authors note that their research “provided robust support for claims that contagious yawning is present in dogs.” 

Co-author Patrick Neilands, a PhD student at the New Zealand University of Auckland who works in the Animal Minds research group, told Newsweek the study was one of the most definitive in terms of proving that dogs can catch yawns from humans. 

The phenomenon of contagious yawning is “ancient” in evolutionary terms, Neilands said

But what explains the phenomenon? 

Scientists once hypothesized that the main function of yawning was “thermoregulation,” or keeping the brain cool. “Common belief is that yawning helps to increase the oxygen supply,” Science Daily wrote in 2014, citing research led by a SUNY College at Oneonta, New York, psychologist.  

In recent years, some scientists have posited that contagious yawning is a reflection of empathy. If a person (or a dog) catches a yawn, according to this hypothesis, it means they feel some degree of empathy for the original yawner.

But the latest study actually rejects the empathy-theory, finding no clear link between empathy and contagious yawning.   

The authors wrote that their research “rules out using contagious yawning as an indirect signal of empathy in other animals.” 

“Our finding that contagious yawning is not a reliable indicator of empathy was very surprising,” Neilands told Newsweek.

“Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any shortcuts in untangling the evolutionary roots of empathy,” he added. “However, while this is disappointing, we hope our findings can act as an impetus for researchers to develop better, more direct tests of empathy in non-human animals.” 

While the team of researchers could not prove a connection between contagious yawning and empathy, that doesn’t mean no connection exists, however. It just means that contagious yawning alone “cannot be taken as a diagnostic signal for the presence of these empathetic processes.” 

In other words, fear not that your dog doesn’t feel empathy for you. Just don’t look to your pet’s contagious yawning as the primary indicator of it.