Why Do Dogs Yawn?

Yawning is a familiar behavior to us humans. Oftentimes we yawn when we’re bored or sleepy. Our stretched open jaws may be accompanied by an oh so satisfying stretch. While little is known about the biological reason behind yawning, we do know that it is a trait shared among mammals and most other animals with backbones including fish, birds, reptiles, and of course, dogs. In this article, we will discuss the contexts in which we may observe our dogs yawning, and what it may indicate to us about our pet’s well being.

What Exactly Is A Yawn?

The verb “to yawn” comes from an old English word that means to gape or open wide. Yawning is aptly named as the most defining feature of a yawn is a wide-open mouth. Additional features of the yawn include stretched facial muscles, a tilted back head, narrow or closed eyes, watering eyes, and increased salivation (Provine, 2005). True yawns are accompanied by a slow, deep inhale and a more rapid exhale (Hoff, 2001). Yawing is considered to be a stereotyped action pattern as they are typically consistent in duration and frequency within individuals (Provine, 1986). While yawns can be triggered by stimuli, they most often occur spontaneously during periods associated with a change in state of arousal (Provine, 2005).

Why Do Dogs Yawn?

There are a number of reasons that a dog may yawn. Dogs may ‘catch’ a yawn from observing or hearing others yawn, or they may yawn spontaneously. Spontaneous yawns are most likely to be observed when dogs are transitioning from one state of arousal to another. This could include transitioning from awake to tired, relaxed to anxious, bored to excited, or nervous to relaxed. Dogs may also use yawning as a way to pacify aggression or excitement in other individuals (Hoff, 2001). These varying yawns are morphologically identical and can only be distinguished from one another by reading their context (Madsen and Persson, 2013). Associated behaviors such as lip licking, shaking, panting, or scratching can help dog parents determine whether the yawn is due to a positive or negative change in their dog’s state.

Specific Situations When Dogs Yawn

When interacting with dogs, we should be aware of their yawns and use them as a way to gauge how they are feeling. Yawns can be a sign that dogs are comfortable and sleepy or a sign that we’ve pushed our dog too far into an uncomfortable situation. Yawns are one of many ways that dogs communicate their emotional states with us and one another. By improving our ability to communicate with our dogs we can improve our social bonds and provide higher welfare for our beloved pets. In the next few sections, we will explore some possible scenarios that a pet parent may encounter with their own dog and try to address possible reasons for the yawn.

  • Why Do Dogs Yawn When You Cuddle Them?

As much as we love cuddling on our dogs, the feeling may not always be reciprocated. Hugging or excessive contact may make our dogs feel uncomfortable, even more so if they’re receiving attention from an unfamiliar individual (Reisner et al., 2011). This shift from a comfortable to anxious state can trigger dogs to yawn. If you notice your dog yawning during or after a hug or cuddling, this may be a sign that your dog is uncomfortable. Consider finding ways to show your affection in ways that are enjoyable for both you and your pet. Remember, all dogs are individuals with varying thresholds for the type and amount of attention they receive.  Similarly, dogs yawn for the same reasons when you pet them.

  • Why Do Dogs Yawn And Stretch?

Yawning and stretching are two closely linked behaviors that are often observed together. Researchers studying fetal development have even observed these behaviors occurring together in the womb (De Vreis et al., 1982). In humans, it is common for individuals to yawn and stretch after slumber (Provine, 2005). This same behavior has been observed in dogs. If we observe our dogs yawning and stretching after waking up, it is likely due to them transitioning from a tired to awake state and we should not be concerned. Dogs, similar to humans, may yawn prior to sleeping as they transition from being awake to feeling sleepy. Some think yawning helps tired individuals stay alert (Guggisberg et al., 2007). More recent research has shown a link with yawning and stretching with regulating brain temperature (Shoup-Knox et al., 2010) and that brain size is linked to yawn duration (Gallup et al., 2019). When we observe our dogs yawning and stretching, it may just be their way of maintaining normal body functioning.

  • Why Do Dogs Yawn During Training?

If your dog starts to yawn during a training session, it might be a sign that you may need to adapt your training techniques or that your dog needs a break. Using improper training techniques can cause stress for your dog resulting in yawning. If your dog is getting frustrated during a session, they may yawn and show other displacement behaviors. Additionally, travel or exposure to novelty can also invoke stress or anxiety in our dogs, triggering them to yawn.

  • Why Do Dogs Yawn And Make A Noise?

It is completely natural for your dog to make a noise while yawning. The sound likely comes from air passing over the dogs vocal cords during the exhale portion of the yawn. Dogs may use these sounds as a further way to communicate their feelings. Yawning sounds can range from high pitched squeaks to low grumbly sounds. As with any other yawns, read the environmental context and look for other body language that could indicate discomfort or contentment.

Is A Dog Yawning A Sign Of Stress?

As previously mentioned, yawning may be an indicator that your dog is experiencing stress. Researchers have shown that some behavioral responses, including yawning, were accompanied by increased heart rate and stress hormone levels (Beerda et al., 1997). When dogs are in a stressful situation, they may use displacement behaviors as a way to comfort themselves. Yawning is one of these well known behaviors that dogs may use to self soothe. If you notice other displacement behaviors such as ‘shaking it off’, sniffing, lip licking, or scratching, then you can deduce that your dog is probably experiencing discomfort, and the yawns are probably due to stress and not tiredness or boredom.  

When Should I Be Worried About My Dog Yawning?

If your dog is yawning due to stress, you should try to determine the stressful stimulus and try to avoid it in the future. Yawning can be an early waning sign that a dog is upset and if respected you may prevent the dog from using more severe behaviors, such as biting, to communicate their feelings. When dogs are around children or new people they should be observed carefully for yawns or other displacement behaviors that could indicate discomfort. If your dog is experiencing excessive yawning behavior that can’t be explained by their environment, this could be a sign of an underlying health condition. Please consult with a veterinarian if you observe sudden changes in your dog’s behavior, including yawning.

Are Dog Yawns Contagious To Other Dogs, Animals, Or Humans?

Yawns in humans are considered to be contagious, meaning that seeing, hearing, or even thinking about yawning can trigger you to yawn. I’m willing to bet that you’ve yawned once or twice reading this article! The question remains as to whether this same phenomenon happens in dogs. There is evidence suggesting that the sight or sound of a human yawning can trigger dogs to yawn (Joly-Mascheroni  et al., 2008; Madsen and Persson, 2013; Buttner and Strasser, 2014), however it can be difficult to determine whether this is true contagious yawning, or instead a response to social stress experienced during the experiment. Since dogs have evolved so closely with human beings, it would make sense for dogs to show empathetic yawning with their fellow humans. A couple of recent studies have explored whether familiarity with the yawner influenced contagious yawning. Both studies saw that dogs were more likely to yawn when a familiar individual was yawning as opposed to an unfamiliar individual (Silva et al., 2012; Romero et al., 2013). These results may indicate that rudimentary forms of empathy are present in domesticated dogs. Interestingly though, no study has shown evidence that dogs yawns are contagious between dogs, or other animals (Harr et al., 2009, O’Hara and Reeve, 2011).

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has helped improve your understanding of why dogs yawn. The next time you see your dog yawning, try to assess whether it’s due to tiredness, boredom, or anxiety. By reading our dog’s yawns we can manage our dog’s environment to keep them feeling happy and secure.

Works Cited

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Buttner, A. P., & Strasser, R. (2014). Contagious yawning, social cognition, and arousal: an investigation of the processes underlying shelter dogs’ responses to human yawns. Animal cognition17(1), 95-104.

De Vries, J. I., Visser, G. H., & Prechtl, H. F. (1982). The emergence of fetal behaviour. I. Qualitative aspects. Early human development7(4), 301-322.

Gallup, A. C., Moscatello, L., & Massen, J. J. (2019). Brain weight predicts yawn duration across domesticated dog breeds. Current Zoology.

Guggisberg, A. G., Mathis, J., Herrmann, U. S., & Hess, C. W. (2007). The functional relationship between yawning and vigilance. Behavioural Brain Research179(1), 159-166.

Harr, A. L., Gilbert, V. R., & Phillips, K. A. (2009). Do dogs (Canis familiaris) show contagious yawning?. Animal cognition12(6), 833-837.

Hoff, A. E. (2001). Mouths wide open: yawning as a communicative behavior in dogs (Doctoral dissertation, Colorado State University. Libraries).

Joly-Mascheroni, R. M., Senju, A., & Shepherd, A. J. (2008). Dogs catch human yawns. Biology Letters4(5), 446-448.

Madsen, E. A., & Persson, T. (2013). Contagious yawning in domestic dog puppies (Canis lupus   familiaris): the effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on low-level imitation in dogs. Animal cognition16(2), 233-240.

O’Hara, S. J., & Reeve, A. V. (2011). A test of the yawning contagion and emotional connectedness hypothesis in dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour81(1), 335-340.

Provine, R. R. (1986). Yawning as a stereotyped action pattern and releasing stimulus. Ethology72(2), 109-122.

Provine, R. R. (2005). Yawning: the yawn is primal, unstoppable and contagious, revealing the    evolutionary and neural basis of empathy and unconscious behavior. American scientist93(6), 532-539.

Reisner, I. R., Nance, M. L., Zeller, J. S., Houseknecht, E. M., Kassam-Adams, N., & Wiebe, D. J. (2011).   Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Injury prevention17(5), 348-353.

Romero, T., Konno, A., & Hasegawa, T. (2013). Familiarity bias and physiological responses in contagious yawning by dogs support link to empathy. PloS one8(8).

Silva, K., Bessa, J., & De Sousa, L. (2012). Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis   familiaris): first evidence for social modulation. Animal cognition15(4), 721-724.