While your dog may not be able to tell you what they need in actual words, they use plenty of cues to communicate, including barking, pawing, and even yawning.
While most people associate yawning with exhaustion or boredom, dogs yawn for many reasons. In fact, yawning is an important signal you can use to gauge how your dog is feeling. Here’s the non-yawn-inducing breakdown of why dogs yawn.
Why do dogs yawn?
As with people, there are a multitude of circumstances in which dogs yawn, and scientists and behaviorists have floated numerous theories, several of which are backed by extensive research.
Yawning due to fatigue
Of course, dogs yawn because they’re tired—just like us. While researchers aren’t sure why the body’s response to being tired is to yawn, one theory posits that yawning is a way to regulate body temperature and even temporarily raise one’s heart rate, both factors which can help abate sleepiness.
Not sure if your dog is yawning because they’re sleepy? Look for context clues: is their yawn accompanied by stretching and other signs of fatigue—such as drooping eyelids or even nodding off? Odds are that you just have a sleepy friend.
But yawning doesn’t always mean fatigue.
Yawning as a sign of stress and anxiety
Another common reason dogs yawn is as a stress response. Whether experiencing fear, separation anxiety, or another uncomfortable situation (such as being hugged or touched when uninvited, or confronting strange dogs or people), dogs will often yawn in response to mental or emotional discomfort.
One way to determine whether your dog’s yawning is a stress response is to look at frequency.
Excessive yawning is linked to higher cortisol levels, a hormone the body releases when stressed, in humans, and a similar link has been found in dogs. Frequent yawning is a common sign of stress, especially if the yawns are prolonged. (While the average length of a yawn depends on your dog’s size, when your dog holds their yawn longer than usual, that’s generally a sign of stress.)
Recognizing yawning as a stress signal can help you remove your canine companion from stressful situations, an essential component of dog care. As with humans, stress can cause serious health issues in dogs, including high blood pressure, appetite loss, and even a weakened immune system.
Yawning as an appeasement signal
Another common reason dogs yawn is to avoid a conflict with a potential aggressor. It’s what experts call a calming signal. A yawn in this situation is a nonverbal means of saying, “I’m not a threat” or “I don’t want a problem.” Yawning, along with blinking, and licking their nose, is one of the first steps on what’s known as the ladder of aggression. If the signals at this stage are unheeded, or if the situation escalates, they can move up the ladder to turning their head, moving away, or growling.
Once again, to determine the cause of the yawn, look at the context in which your dog is yawning. Is another animal in their space and/or displaying aggressive behavior? Some examples of aggressive behavior include hard stares, growling, snapping, and even going rigid.
If your dog is yawning to calm another dog or a person, remove them from the situation.
Can dogs catch yawns the way humans do?
One common yawning phenomenon among humans is catching yawns, or, yawning when someone else does. This is also known as contagious yawning, something that humans and their primate cousins are known to do.
And it seems like our canine companions also catch yawns. While one study showed that dogs don’t yawn when they see video of people or dogs yawning, several other studies have found that dogs participate in contagious yawning. One study, from the University of Tokyo, found that over half of the dogs they looked at yawned after watching their owner yawn. Humans similarly tend to yawn more when they watch someone they’re familiar with yawn than when they watch a stranger.
Research shows that contagious yawning is associated with better social skills and empathy in humans, and the University of Tokyo research found the same link between contagious yawning and empathy in dogs—surprising no one who has ever met a dog.