Dogs can catch the "yawns" : can canines be empathetic?
I have been an infectious yawn-er since I was knee high to a grasshopper and this is no surprise for humans.
Why do we yawn and how is it important?
Why yawning should be infectious has foxed some the greatest minds in science but the latest study into the topic suggests it may have something to do with emotional empathy - we yawn when we see someone else yawning because of our need to empathise with other people.
Atsushi Senju of Birkbeck College, part of London University, and colleagues from Japan investigated infectious yawning in autistic and non-autistic children. They found that autistic children did not experience contagious yawning. Autism is known to be a developmental disorder of the brain which results in children being unable to form normal emotional ties with the people they meet. Some experts suggest the condition is the result of an inability to empathise with other people's emotional states.
And it seems like dogs are also capable of this too:
It turns out, however, that man's best friend is highly sensitive to catching human yawns, with 72 percent of 29 dogs tested yawning after observing a person doing so.
Writing in the journal Biology Letters, Atsushi Senju and colleagues at London's Birkbeck College said this behavior showed dogs were skilled at reading human social cues and "may relate to their capacity for empathy."
And yawning could be a dog’s way of sympathising with his owner on his return from a hard day at the office.
The researchers said: ‘Dogs have exceptional capacities to decode social signals from humans, possibly as a result of the domestication process. Therefore, it is also possible they have the capacity for empathy and that this underlies contagious yawning.’
However, it is also possible that yawning is a sign of stress, caused by the animal picking up its owner’s tense state. Although yawning is often thought of as a precursor to sleep, the rush of cold air taken in actually boosts alertness.