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Mirror Neurons

Yawning Is Contagious Between Dogs and Humans

Catching your dog's yawns is a sign of interspecies empathy

Key points

  • Yawns are contagious between humans and dogs.
  • Contagious yawning is a sign of empathy between species.
  • Mirror neurons are likely responsible for contagious yawning.
pxhere / public domain
Source: pxhere / public domain

Yawning, an act so simple yet intriguing, holds a peculiar secret—it's contagious not just between humans but between humans and dogs as well. In our book, The Purest Bond: Understanding the Human-Canine Connection, we took a deep dive into the science behind our relationship with dogs. Contagious yawning is one phenomenon that provides fascinating insights into the social and emotional connections between us and our canine companions.

Yawning is believed to be a mechanism to keep the brain alert and awake. However, the contagious aspect of yawning, especially across species, moves into psychological and neurological realms.

Contagious yawning among humans is well-documented and is thought to be related to empathy and social bonding. It's more likely to occur among close friends and family members than strangers, suggesting a link to emotional ties and social understanding. The idea that yawning could be contagious between humans and dogs was initially met with skepticism, but research has provided compelling evidence supporting this phenomenon.

A study conducted in 2008 by researchers at the University of London showed that dogs could catch yawns from humans. Researchers yawned at dogs, and 72 percent of them yawned back—a higher percentage of yawn reciprocating than in humans. It was one of the first instances showing contagious yawning between non-primate species. Dogs, known for their acute observational skills and abilities to understand human social cues, were the ideal subjects for such a study.

These results suggest dogs have at least some form of empathy. Atsushi Senju, a contributor to the study, observes that individuals more prone to contagious yawning tend to have higher empathy scores. Additionally, those with certain forms of autism, a condition partly marked by challenges in empathizing with others, typically do not exhibit contagious yawning.

Further research delved into the specifics of this cross-species phenomenon. A study published in the journal Animal Cognition found that dogs were more likely to yawn in response to their owners' yawns than those of strangers, indicating a certain level of emotional connection is necessary for this contagion to occur. This finding aligns with the theory that contagious yawning is related to empathy.

However, not all researchers agree. A 2020 study that re-analyzed data from six previous studies found "no evidence that dogs display either a familiarity or gender bias in contagious yawning, two predictions made by the contagious yawning-empathy hypothesis." Given that gender is a human social construct, it is unclear if these researchers are actually discussing biological sex and expect sexual differences to matter and manifest across species, or if they are, indeed, discussing gender and looking for that social construct to be recognizable and impactful to dogs.

Either way, the mechanism behind contagious yawning between humans and dogs is likely rooted in the mirror neuron system, a part of the brain responsible for empathy and the understanding of others' actions and intentions. When we see someone yawn, our mirror neurons activate the same regions of the brain affected if we were yawning, leading to a yawn response. This system is not unique to humans and has been identified in other species, including dogs.

The science behind contagious yawning between humans and dogs offers a glimpse into the complexity of social and emotional connections across species. It emphasizes the depth of the bond between humans and dogs, transcending companionship and entering the realms of empathy and emotional synchrony. This research not only enriches our understanding of animal behavior but also sheds light on the evolutionary aspects of human-animal interactions, underscoring the profound interconnectedness of our lives.


Bryner, Jeanna. (2011). Yawns More Contagious Among Friends, December 07, 2011

Joly-Mascheroni, R. M., Senju, A., & Shepherd, A. J. (2008). Dogs catch human yawns. Biology Letters, 4(5), 446-448.

Silva, K., Bessa, J., & De Sousa, L. (2012). Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation. Animal cognition, 15, 721-724.

Neilands, P., Claessens, S., Ren, I., Hassall, R., Bastos, A. P., & Taylor, A. H. (2020). Contagious yawning is not a signal of empathy: No evidence of familiarity, gender or prosociality biases in dogs. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 287(1920), 20192236.

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