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Contagious Yawning Reveals Canine Empathy

Update Date: Aug 07, 2013 05:00 PM EDT
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Dogs yawn to show empathy, a new study suggests.

While dogs yawn contagiously when they see humans yawning, new research reveals that they respond more frequently to the yawns of their owners.

Japanese researchers at the University of Tokyo had pet dogs watch their owner or a stranger yawn or pretend to yawn. They found that dogs yawned significantly more in response to their owners' actions than to the strangers' yawn.

However, dogs also yawned less frequently to the fake yawns, suggesting that they have the ability to yawn contagiously.

Researchers explain that past studies revealed that dogs yawn in response to human yawns. However, researchers were never sure whether this was a mild stress response or an empathetic response. They say the latest findings suggest that dogs yawn out of empathy because they responded more to their owners' genuine yawns than those of a stranger.

Researchers said that it was unlikely that yawns served as a distress response for dogs because there were no significant differences in the animals' heartbeats during the experiments.

"Our study suggests that contagious yawning in dogs is emotionally connected in a way similar to humans. Although our study cannot determine the exact underlying mechanism operative in dogs, the subjects' physiological measures taken during the study allowed us to counter the alternative hypothesis of yawning as a distress response," leas researcher Teresa Romero said in a news release.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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