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Healthy Pets

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Yawn and Your Dog Yawns With You

Contagious yawning between owners and their dogs may be a sign of social bonding, experts say

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Brenda Goodman

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Aug. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Yawn in the presence of your pooch and they're likely to yawn right back at you, a new study shows.

The research, a series of carefully controlled experiments with 25 dogs of different breeds, confirms that dogs are more likely to "catch" their owner's yawns than a stranger's and more likely to respond to real yawns as opposed to fake ones. Fake yawns involve opening and closing the mouth in the movement of a yawn without making any sound.

Researchers also strapped heart rate monitors to the dogs to make sure they weren't yawning because they were stressed or anxious. They weren't.

"We tried to create a comfortable atmosphere in doing the experiment, and sometimes it was so comfortable for them that they fell asleep," said study author Teresa Romero, a research fellow in the department of cognitive and behavioral science at the University of Tokyo.

The study was published online on Aug. 7 in the journal PLoS One.

Although copying a yawn may not sound like such an impressive trick, scientists think it's a sign of something important -- the ability to empathize and bond with others.

Previous studies have shown, for example, that people who score higher on measures of empathy are more likely to return yawns than people who aren't as empathetic. And the ability to yawn contagiously appears to develop with age.

"Several studies have shown that children don't begin to show contagious yawning until around 4 years of age, and only reach adult levels around 12 years of age," said Elainie Madsen, a comparative psychologist at Lund University in Sweden, who has studied contagious yawning.

In the animal kingdom, contagious yawning appears to be a rare talent. Certain apes, such as chimpanzees and bonobos, which are some of the closest evolutionary relatives to humans, catch each other's yawns. Beyond apes, one species of bird appears to be able to yawn contagiously, and several recent studies have suggested that Canis familiaris, also known as man's best friend, can do it, too.

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