Owners who say their dogs can feel what they’re feeling aren’t imagining it. The proof may be in a yawn.
A body of research shows that dogs are more likely to yawn when their owners do. It’s a phenomenon called contagious yawning, and you’ve probably even done it yourself. You see someone yawn, so you yawn.
Studies show that humans who catch a yawn from another person have better social skills than others. So, contagious yawns are believed to help show empathy with your fellow yawner.
“It’s reasonable to assume that dogs who yawn when their owners do are more emotionally connected to them,” says Dr. Brian Hare, author of the book The Genius of Dogs and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. “They understand us in ways that other animals don’t, including great apes.”
Why Do Dogs Yawn With Us?
A University of Tokyo study found that just over half the dogs monitored yawned after watching their owners yawn. The researchers also had the dogs watch a stranger yawn, resulting in dogs yawning about half as frequently. What’s more, a University of Portugal study found that 12 of 29 dogs yawned when they heard a recording of their owners yawning.
“Our results show the emotional bond between people and their dogs may be reciprocal,” says Teresa Romero, an animal behavior researcher who conducted the University of Tokyo study.
Romero says contagious yawning may be a way for animals who live together to coordinate activities. Since dogs and humans have been living together for between 14,000 and 30,000 years, contagious yawning may be deeply rooted in canine evolutionary history. Dogs’ longstanding relationships with us may have enabled them to reach across species lines to feel what we’re feeling.
Hare, who has studied dog yawns at the Duke Canine Cognition Center, has found that just 5 percent of dogs yawn contagiously. However, his data comes from the results of an online, at-home canine intelligence test called a “Dognition” assessment. Dognition’s data comes from “citizen scientists” who test their dogs at home, so it’s akin to crowd-sourced research and lacks the control that lab research has. The Dognition test has owners watch dogs for just two minutes to see if they do the contagious yawn. Other canine yawn studies have watched the dog for as long as five minutes.
“I’m not against the idea that dogs yawn contagiously,” Hare says. “We’re just having a hard time demonstrating it. It’s possible we’re doing (the yawn test) wrong. We’re going to analyze the data and find out more.”
Reading Your Dog’s Signals
Your dog isn’t just capable of feeling your emotions, they can also tell you how they’re feeling. Here are some of the ways your dog communicates with you.
Tail Wag Angles
You might already suspect that your dog is talking with their tail when they wag it. But the direction of the tail wag speaks volumes. Italian researchers have found that a wag to the left indicates negative emotions and a wag to the right indicates positive ones.
The researchers put 30 family pets in a camera-equipped cage that tracked the angle of their tail wags. Then they showed the dogs four things: their owner, a stranger, a cat, and an aggressive dog they didn’t know. When the dogs saw their owner, they wagged hard to the right. When they saw the aggressive dog, they wagged to the left. The cat and the stranger got cautious tail wags that were right-ish.
Researchers also measured the dogs’ heart rates while they wagged to determine whether they were stressed or calm. The dogs’ heart rates went up for left wags and stayed down for right wags. So, next time your dog wags their tail, check the angle to see what they’re feeling. As for what exactly is going on in the minds of dogs as they wag left or right, science hasn’t quite found the answer yet.
Puppy Dog Eyes
When your dog gazes at you with puppy dog eyes, they’re reinforcing their bond with you through the power of biochemistry. Researchers have discovered that when your dog looks at you, both of your brains get a jolt of a chemical called oxytocin. That’s the same chemical mothers’ and babies’ brains make when they look at one another and is the biological factor that makes them bond.
“A dog and their owner can make one another feel good just by gazing into each other’s eyes, just like a human baby and parent can,” Hare says. “Somehow dogs have hijacked the process.” So your dog isn’t just asking for a treat when they look at you with those sad eyes — they’re manipulating your brain chemistry.
You may have noticed your dog raises their eyebrows when they look at you, making those puppy dog eyes even more powerful and heart-tugging. One study found that dogs moved their eyebrows more often when a human paid attention to them. There’s even a scientific name for the eyebrow movement: the AU101 inner eyebrow raise.
The research suggested dogs can move their eyebrows voluntarily (which helps them give those longing glances that hit us with a shot of oxytocin). Wolves, domesticated dog’s closest ancestors, don’t have the facial muscles needed to lift their eyebrows like dogs can. The research suggests that in the 30,000 years or so since humans and dogs began hanging out, evolution caused that eyebrow muscle to develop in dogs so they could communicate with their human companions.
“It isn’t a big surprise to dog lovers that dog use gestures to communicate with us,” Hare says. “Dogs have a special genius to understand humans. They can cooperate and communicate with us in ways no other species can.”