Study: Dogs can "Catch" Yawns from HumansPublished September 5, 2008
I have the extreme fortune of being owned by a highly intelligent, blue-eyed white Oriental Shorthair named Hubble. Some of his favorite games are playing fetch and hunting down hidden toys. However, his greatest passion is leaping high into the air to catch his feline flyer. His acrobatic moves rival those of Mikhail Baryshnikov, the famous Russian ballet dancer. Hubble has a tendency to wink at me, and appears to mimic my return winks, for extended periods of time. His attention span seems to be extraordinary.
Nevertheless, there is one distinctive behavior, which I have not yet observed. When I yawn, Hubble never yawns back at me. I only began thinking about this the other day, as I was reading a fascinating article about dogs, which yawn in response to their handler's yawn.
In a study recently published in the journal, "Biology Letters", it was discovered that human yawns are contagious to dogs. Apparently, this behavior may be a sign that canines may be capable of exhibiting an elementary form of empathy. An enigma to scientists, man's best friend has demonstrated the ability to understand human intentions, and eclipse other species in understanding human hand signals and other subtle behavioral commands. However, scientists have not yet found evidence that dogs have a self of self, which is considered necessary to be able to have empathy for others. This is based on their findings that dogs do not recognize themselves in a mirror, which has been the gold-standard test of self-awareness.
Of course, most dog lovers have many anecdotal stories of how their beloved pets have shown compassion and concern for them. So perhaps the jury may still be out.
The latest study, which demonstrates that canines are not very egocentric in their relationships with humans, shows "some low-level attending to what others feel." Anthropologist, Brian Hare, not involved in the study said, "What's fascinating about this study is that you would not expect to find contagious yawning where you did not have self-awareness.” So far, only chimpanzees and humans contagiously yawn.
The study, comprised of 29 dogs, held at the University of London was held in two stages. In the first part, each dog observed a male researcher yawning widely, followed in the control portion of the experiment the dogs observed the same researchers just opening his mouth.
Twenty-one out of the twenty-nine dogs, or 72% actually yawned after observing the researchers yawn which trumped human and chimp results, humans scoring only 45-60%, and chimps, 33%. In the control portion of the test, no dogs yawned.
Approximately, two million years ago in pre-history, yawning meant compliance and submissive behavior toward the alpha male and female. This behavior is also common in gorillas and felines, and may be a vestigial behavioral trait.
So what does this mean? Atsushi Senju, a research fellow at the University of London's Birkbeck College and one of the study authors said, "Dogs are not only reading and responding but may be sharing feelings with humans,"
I am now deeply wondering why Hubble won't yawn back at me. Purrhaps it is because he really knows who the alpha critter is in our household.
See a BBC News video of the study here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7543326.stm
Have you observed mimicking behavior in your pets? Leave a comment and tell us all about it.