Is your dog quick to sidle up to you when you’re sad? Have you seen your dog slink away at times when voices get raised during an argument?
Anyone who has lived with a dog has seen demonstrations of these and similar behavior in other situations. Some might say they are examples of a dog exhibiting signs of empathy.
A recent study published at Plos.org appears to show that contagious yawning may be a sign of cross-species empathy. Contagious yawning, or yawning after being exposed to the sight or sound of another yawn, has previously been documented among some primate species and birds.
This is the first time a cross-species example has been demonstrated
A team of researchers at the University of Tokyo conducted the study with a group of 25 household dogs. During the study, the dogs were exposed to an unfamiliar “control individual” and their owners.
Four experiments were conducted, each lasting 5 minutes. Both the owners and control individuals conducted the same two experiments with each dog, exposing them to a session of real yawns with sound, and a session where the facial motions of a yawn were made without sound.
During each experiment the dogs’ behavior and heart rate was monitored
The heart rate was monitored to address a commonly held belief that yawning could be a tension relief reaction to mild stress. That belief appears to have been contradicted during the experiments, since very slight heart rate elevation was seen.
The unique finding of this study was a significant increase of contagious yawning during the experiments where owners actually yawned in front of their pets. This appears to confirm the theory of cross- species empathy because of the established emotional connection the dogs had with their owners.
The study opens the door to further research of empathy in animal evolution by examining contagious yawning
Dr Teresa Romero, from the University of Tokyo, said: “Our study suggests that contagious yawning in dogs is emotionally connected in a way similar to humans.
“The dogs yawned more frequently when watching the familiar model than the unfamiliar one demonstrating that the contagiousness of yawning in dogs correlated with the level of emotional proximity.”
Contagious yawning is estimated to occur in approximately 50 to 60 percent of adults
Human studies have demonstrated that contagious yawning reflects levels of empathy and social skills. This study appears to show that it exists in our furry friends as well.
While nice to have scientific evidence to back up the theory, as a pet parent, did you ever doubt that empathy was was there?