Some reasons for dog yawning

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 9/14/08
By: Gail T. Fisher


A few weeks ago there was an article in the paper about a study done by a team of British psychologists demonstrating that human yawns are contagious to dogs. The study hypothesizes that because dogs will yawn in response to a human’s yawning at them, they are capable of empathy. Putting aside the question of whether or not dogs are capable of empathy (which few dog owners would dispute, a topic for another time), dogs do yawn in response to a yawn. But more than just responding to a yawn, it’s important to understand some of the reasons dogs yawn.
Dogs yawn in many different circumstances. Termed a “calming signal” by Norwegian author and dog trainer Turid Rugaas, here are just a few of the circumstances under which we see dogs yawn.
  • Excitement and anticipation – Watch for your dog’s yawn when she’s waiting for her dinner, or when you pick up his leash to take him for a walk. You’ll often see your dog yawn in anticipation of a pleasurable activity.
  • Anxiety – When a dog is feeling anxious or concerned perhaps in response to a human emotional state such as anger. You may see your dog yawn, for instance, during a family argument (even if the isn’t being yelled at), or if you’re scolding your dog.
  • Stress – Along with anxiety, dogs may yawn when stressed, or if when they perceive a situation as stressful. For example, if your dog yawns when a child approaches, or when someone hugs him, your dog is communicating that this situation makes him anxious. Not limited to children, if you notice your dog yawning, consider if something or someone might be causing him anxiety. If so, the kindest thing you can do is to rescue your dog from the situation.
  • Confusion – This yawn is likely a stress response when the dog is confused such as wanting to respond to what you want, but not being certain exactly to do. If you give your dog a command and instead of responding, he yawns, it’s not out of disrespect. He’s saying, “I know you want me to do something, but I’m just not sure what that is.” By recognizing that your dog’s yawn means he’s confused, you can fix it—help out your dog by doing more training.
  • Ambivalence – When the dog is feeling conflicted, such as being presented with choices and needing to decide which to make. We sometimes observe this type of yawning in a training situation when we’re working around distractions. The dog has choices—to respond to a command or to the distraction. As a trainer I interpret a yawn in this circumstance (often accompanied by a high-pitched squeak) as a good sign—one that may indicate the dog is about to make the right choice.
  • Communication; a “calming signal” – Dogs often yawn to communicate to others (dogs or humans) that they are friendly; that they don’t present a threat. This form of communicating with a yawn may even be asking for a yawn in response – as a way of saying, “I’m OK . . . are you OK?” (Some dog owners yawn at their dog to communicate calmness. Try it – see if your dog responds.)

Photo Caption:
When the beagle next door came under the fence to visit, he approached Cannon with a yawn -- likely saying "I'm a beagle . . . I mean you no harm." Or maybe it was anxiety being in Cannon's yard.

  • Head-clearing – As a form of self-calming much the way we might engage in a big, centering, lung-filling sigh. We often see this type of yawn at the conclusion of a bout of several dogs racing, wrestling and playing together in our doggie daycare yard. This yawn is often connected with shaking off (another “calming signal”)
I can’t say for sure that dogs don’t yawn for some of the same reasons we do, such as when they’re tired or bored. But usually when my dogs are bored they find something to entertain themselves, and when they’re tired, they just go to sleep. Now that you’re aware of some of the reasons your dog will yawn, you’ll likely notice it a lot more, too. Have fun watching for your dog’s yawns and interpreting them!

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2008. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.