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Nothing to yawn at: Dogs feel your pain

Yawn next to your dog, and she may do the same. Though it seems simple, this contagious behavior is actually quite remarkable: Only a few animals do it, and only dogs cross the species barrier.

Now a new study finds that dogs yawn even when they only hear the sound of us yawning, the strongest evidence yet that canines may be able to empathize with us.

Humans tend to yawn more with friends and acquaintances, suggesting that “catching” someone’s yawn may be tied to feelings of empathy. Similarly, some studies have found that dogs tend to yawn more after watching familiar people yawning.

But it is unclear whether the canine behavior is linked to empathy as it is in people. One clue might be if even the mere sound of a human yawn elicited yawning in dogs.

To that end, scientists at the University of Porto in Portugal recruited 29 dogs, all of whom had lived for at least six months with their owners. To reduce anxiety, the study was performed in familiar rooms in the dogs’ homes and in the presence of a known person but with no visual contact with their owners.

The team, led by behavioral biologist Karine Silva, recorded yawning sounds of the dogs’ owners and an unfamiliar woman as well as an artificial control sound consisting of a computer-reversed yawn.

Each dog heard all of the sounds in two sessions, each carried out seven days apart. During the sessions, the researchers measured the number of elicited yawns in dogs in response to sounds from known and unknown people.

As will be reported in the July issue of Animal Cognition, 12 out of 29 dogs yawned during the test. On average, canines yawned five times more often when they heard humans they knew yawning as opposed to control sounds.

“These results suggest that dogs have the capacity to empathize with humans,” Silva says.

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