The Dog Yawn: What Does it Mean?
Have you ever seen a dog yawn? His eyes squeeze shut, his ears fold back, and his mouth opens so wide that you can count every tooth. This natural response can happen many times a day, hundreds or even thousands of times in your dog’s life. Sleepy, anxious, or even just bored, your dog is bound to yawn at some point if you watch carefully.
Lots of animals, including humans, yawn. The earliest yawn for people often occurs 11 weeks after conception – that's before the baby is even born. But why do dogs yawn? Well, to be honest, we don’t really know. In fact, we don't know why **we** yawn, although several studies have investigated the question. Here are some of the most popular theories on this sleepy canine behavior.
Theories About Why Dogs Yawn
- Physiology: This theory claims that you yawn because of low oxygen levels in the blood. Yawning causes you to take a deep breath. Another related theory proposes that yawning may have a hand in controlling the brain’s temperature.
- Boredom: According to this theory, yawns can help perk up your brain from a dull task or day.
- Evolutionary: Dogs (and humans) yawn to display their teeth, a communication behavior left over from our primitive beginnings.
- Communication: Just like smiling tells people you are happy, yawning simply lets people know you are tired (or bored).
- Energy Release: The instinctive motion involves coordinated muscle movement that burns off extra energy and helps ease you (and your dog) into relaxation.
- Stress: This is the most popular theory about why dogs yawn. Some dogs will yawn when stressed or agitated, and others will appear tense. If you notice yawning while watching dogs interact, especially if one dog is stressed and starts to yawn, it is often a good time to separate the dogs. Some behaviorist look at the yawn as a way of saying “Ok, I’ve really had enough.”
- Protection: Dogs often yawn in times of conflict, especially between dogs. For example, if two hungry dogs are standing near the same dish of food, one might yawn where the other dog can see. Look at the situation in an evolutionary context: Putting on a "sleepy" display by yawning allows the animal to escape a problematic situation without sending out the message that he is scared, confused, or in conflict with others. Interestingly, if you yawn at a dog it tells him you mean him no harm.
Are Dog Yawns Contagious?
Recent studies have shown that the yawn can be contagious. Scientists have discovered that some species including humans, chimpanzees, Australian budgerigars, and dogs can feel the urge to yawn after watching or sometimes even hearing a yawn. In fact, one study showed that 54% of dogs will yawn when their owners do.
There are several theories of why this is so; it may be a way for humans show empathy, for one. Another is that the behavior can have an effect on dominance or group structure. Whatever the cause, the behavior is a fascinating one.
One More Theory on the Dog Yawn
Just as "a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh," a yawn may be… well, just a yawn. At the end of the day, scientists still don’t have a good answer for why yawns happen. It may just be that a giant yawn and stretch feels good – and that’s something that humans and dogs can almost certainly agree on!