Pets are good for us. Pets provide companionship, exercise, affection, and opportunities to interact with neighbors. Animals have been used effectively in therapy. They provide companionship for lonely children and older adults. And, almost everybody talks to their pets. But, do they understand us? Can they feel our emotions?
One recent study shines some light on this question. In a very interesting study conducted Romero, Konno, and Hasegawa (2013), 25 dogs of varied breeds were studied to test cross species empathy. It was reasoned that contagious yawning is related to social communication and empathy. This is supported by previous nueropsych and questionnaire research with both primates and humans. It is also known that empathic humans mimic yawning more than non-empathic ones. Furthermore, it is believed that dogs can read their owners moods. However, there is very little research testing contagious yawning across species, e.g. between humans and dogs. As stated by the authors, “If contagious yawning indeed is related to the capacity for empathy, it could become a powerful tool to explore the root of empathy in animal evolution by studying cross-species contagious yawning.”
To test this hypothesis, Romero, Konno, and Hasegawa set up four experimental conditions. The conditions were: familiar-yawn, familiar-control, unfamiliar-yawn, and unfamiliar-control. In the familiar yawn condition, a dog was observed mimicking its owner yawning. In the familiar-control condition, the owner opened and closed their mouth without yawning and vocalizing. In the unfamiliar-yawning condition, the same dog was observed mimicking yawning to an unfamiliar experimenter. And, finally, in the fourth experimental condition or unfamiliar control, the same researcher opened and closed her mouth without yawning. Dogs were videotaped in each condition and the number of yawns were compared. The results indicated that there was significantly more yawning in the familiar-yawning condition. In other words, dogs are more likely to mimic their owner yawning than an unfamiliar model.
While this study has the limits of a small sample and needs replication, it is noteworthy because it provides some evidence that dogs will mimic humans and that they are more likely to mimic their owner. Whether or not contagious yawning is a form of empathy awaits further research but clearly this study provides some evidence that dogs are sensitive to their owners.
Romero T, Konno A, Hasegawa T (2013). Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71365. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071365.