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17 août 2008
Biology letters
Dogs catch human yawns
RM Joly-Mascheroni, A Senju, AJ Sheperd
School of psychology, Birkbeck, London


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This study is the first to demonstrate that human yawns are possibly contagious to domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Twenty-nine dogs observed a human yawning or making control mouth movements. Twenty-one dogs yawned when they observed a human yawning, but control mouth movements did not elicit yawning from any of them. The presence of contagious yawning in dogs suggests that this phenomenon is not specific to primate species and may indicate that dogs possess the capacity for a rudimentary form of empathy. Since yawning is known to modulate the levels of arousal, yawn contagion may help coordinate dog-human interaction and communication. Understanding the mechanism as well as the function of contagious yawn- ing between humans and dogs requires more detailed investigation. Keywords: yawning; contagious yawning; dog; empathy; social cognition
In left the dog observes the human yawning, in medial the dog starts yawning as the human finishes (reflected in the mirror behind the dog), and in right the dog completes the yawn.
-Harr AL, Gilbert VR Do dogs show contagious yawning ? Anim Cogn. 2009;12(6):833-837
-Joly-Mascheroni RM, Senju A, Sheperd AJ Dogs catch human yawns Biology letters Animal Behaviour 2008;4(5):446-448
-Lindsay SR Coping with fear and stress: licking and yawning. Handbook of applied dog behavior and training 2000 
-Madsen EA, Persson T. Contagious yawning in domestic dog puppies (Canis lupus familiaris): the effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on low-level imitation in dogs. Anim Cogn. 2012
-O'Hara SJ, Reeve AV A test of the yawning contagion and emotional connectedness hypothesis in dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour 2011;81:335-340
-Perkins JR Teaching Dogs to Yawn, Sneeze, and Implications for Preparedness Theory and Observational Learning. In: Kusonose, Ryo and Sato, Shusuke 39th Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology, Kanagawa, Japan. 20-24 August, 2005
-Silva K, Bessa J, de Sousa L. Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation. Anim Cogn. 2012.
1. Introduction
Contagious yawning (i.e. yawning triggered by perceiv- ing others yawning) is a well-documented phenomenon (e.g. Moore 1942; Provine 1986; Platek et al. 2003; Senju et al. 2007). Although some claim that contagious yawning is a response to an innate releasing mechanism ( Provine 1986), the relationship between the susceptibility to contagious yawning and self- reported scores of empathy ( Platek et al. 2003), as well as the absence of contagious yawning in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (Senju et al. 2007), suggests that it may be related to the capacity for empathy ( Preston & de Waal 2002).
Even though spontaneous yawning is widespread among vertebrate species (Baenninger 1987; Heusner 1946), contagious yawning has been reported to occur only in humans and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes; Anderson et al. 2004). Stumptail macaques (Macaca arctoides) also yawn in response to observed yawns, although it is unclear whether this behaviour is similar to contagious yawning found in other species or simply reflects stress ( Paukner & Anderson 2006).
The current study examined whether contagious yawning can be observed in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Dogs are unusually skilled at reading human social and communicative cues. They can follow human gaze and pointing ( Hare et al. 2002; Miklosi et al. 2003; Miklosi & Soproni 2006), they can show sensitivi ty to other's knowledge states (e.g. indicating the location of a hidden toy more frequently to someone not involved in hiding it than to someone who did the hiding, Viranyi et al. 2006) and they are even able to match their own actions to obser ved human actions ( Topal et al. 2006). Dogs' unique social skills in interacting with humans may be the result of selection pressures during the process of domestication ( Hare & Tomasello 2005; Miklosi et al. 2003, 2007).
Therefore, there is the potential that dogs may also have devel oped the capacity f or empathy towards humans, and may catch human yawns. However, no empirical studies have been reported, which systematically investigate contagious yawning in dogs. In the current study, dogs observed a human experimenter yawning (yawning condition) or demonstrating non-yawning mouth movements (control condition). If dogs have the capacity for contagious yawning, they should yawn more in the yawning condition than in the control condition.
4. Discussion
The current study demonstrates that human yawns are possibly contagious to dogs. The presentation of human yawning elicited yawns in 72 per cent of the dogs tested, which is higher than the rate reported in humans (45-60%) and chimpanzees (33%). This effect cannot be attributed to a general effect of the mere presence of unf amiliar humans, or to the obser vation of human mouth movements in general, because no dogs yawned in the control condition.
This study is the first to demonstrate that the obser vation of yawning elicits yawning in a non-primate species, as well as the first demonstration of possible contagious yawning between different species. Since yawning is known to modulate the level of arousal (Daquin et al. 2001), such temporally synchronized occurrences of yawning may help coordinate interactions as well as communication between humans and dogs.
The high yawning rate may be due to displaying "live" acted yawns rather than video-recorded yawns that have been used in some previous studies (Anderson et al. 2004; Paukner & Anderson 2006; Senju et al. 2007). It is, however, highly unlikely that the present results could be influenced by the experimenter unintentionally reinforcing dog's yawning in the yawning condition.
The main analysis is based on dichotomous data (i.e. the dog yawned or did not yawn in each condition). Reinforcement of chance yawns could only account for a difference in absolute number of yawns per dog, and not the presence/ absence of yawns for a dog in each condition. There are at least two possibilities why human yawns elicit yawning in dogs.
First, the susceptibility to contagious yawning of dogs may relate to their capacity for empathy. In humans ( Platek et al. 2003; Senju et al. 2007) and chimpanzees (Anderson et al. 2004), several studies have suggested that contagious yawning relates to the capacity for empathy, although the mechanism underlying this relationship is still unclear. As described above, dogs have exceptional capacities to decode social signals from humans, possibly as a result of the domestication process ( Hare & Tomasello 2005; Miklosi et al. 2003, 2007). Therefore, it is also possible that they have the capacity for empathy, such as representing humans' actions and modulating their own behavioural and autonomic responses accordingly (see also Topal et al. 2006), and that this underlies contagious yawning.
Alternatively, dogs may have developed the capacity for contagious yawning during past synchronous yawning experiences with humans (e.g. Heyes & Ray 2000), either by sharing (e.g. boring) experiences with humans or by observing human's yawns contagiously to dog's yawns.
Second, it is also possible that the dogs' yawns may have been induced by mildly heightened tension or stress. For example, macaques are known to exhibit "emotion yawns" or "social yawns" during antagonistic social encounters ( Deputte 1994; Smith 1999; Paukner & Anderson 2006). Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility that human yawns are perceived as antagonistic to the dogs.
Previous studies have demonstrated that dogs may yawn in response to an encounter with novel humans (Beerda et al. 1998; Hennessy et al. 2006). Some have argued that it is a response to acute stress (Beerda et al. 1998), althoughth is argument is not supported by more recent empirical studies (e.g. Hennessy et al. 2006; Rooney et al. 2007).
However, as physiological measurements of stress, such as saliva/blood cor tisol or heart rate, were not available f or t he current sample, and because there has not been enough consensus and standardization on how to interpret dogs' behaviours ( Diederich & Giffroy 2006), further studies, ideally with concurrent physiological measurements, are required to test whether contagious yawning between humans and dogs is mediated by a stress- or tension- related response.
At least, the current results cannot be attributed to more general factors related to stress, such as an encounter with a strange human or to the recording equipment, as no dogs yawned in the control condition.
Although the current study cannot discriminate between these two possible explanations, fur ther studies could explore the mechanism underlying, as well as the evolutionar y origin of contagious yawning and its relationship to the capacity for empathy.
For example, the current study demonstrated that dogs appear to catch human yawns. However, for practical reasons, we did not examine whether they yawn contagiously to conspecifics' yawns.
If the dogs' capacity for contagious yawning has evolved with the capacity for reading human communicative signals, it is possible that dogs are more sensitive to human yawns than dogs' yawns.
By contrast, if they have acquired the capacity for contagious yawning as an adaptation for within-species social interaction and communication, which has transferred to dog-human interaction, they may be more sensitive to the yawns of conspecifics. Such contrasts may help highlight the functional specialization of contagious yawning in dogs and, possibly, in other species as well.

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