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Why Do Dogs Yawn?

Dog yawning on bed

All dog owners know how it goes: you're on the couch, and you're playing with your dog. It's fun for you. Plus, it's a great stress reliever. Work has been a bit stressful lately, and it's autumn, so everywhere is frequently dark and gloomy. Gently playing with your dog is therapy for you.

So you're playing with reckless abandon, using the "whosagoodboy" voice and everything when your dog lets out an enormous yawn. The yawn is so big; you can see all the teeth and even the back of their throat. The dog yawning never fails to surprise you, and as you stroke your dog's fur, you have so many questions.

Why do dogs yawn? What does a dog yawn mean? Does a dog yawn mean the dog is stressed? Is it a calming signal? Is my dog feeling anxious? Can I tell from his body language? Does a dog yawn follow the same rules as a human yawn? Is a dog yawn contagious? Am I too weird for asking these questions?

Well, we are here to answer all of those questions (except the last one. If you're weird, you will know).

So, follow us as we unravel the question: why do dogs yawn?

What Does It Mean When Your Dog Yawns?

We're going to go straight to the point and answer the question. What does it mean when your dog yawns?

Are you trying to figure out why your dog is yawning all the time? Well, there is no straightforward answer. Your dog may yawn for many reasons.

Stress is one major cause of a dog yawning, especially if it is excessive yawning. Yawning is a way for dogs, including domesticated dogs, to calm themselves. For example, say your dog is participating in dog training, and it's not going great. Your dog, feeling stressed and displeased that you're angry at him, will frequently yawn. Hence, if your pup is expelling the yawns just a bit too often, you might want to check around and see what's stressing the dog. The study also states that yawn contagion might be found in dogs, which is linked with emotional communication, known as emotional contagion. You can read more about yawn contagion here.

"Okay," you might add, "so do dogs only yawn when they are stressed?" The answer is no. Dogs yawn for other reasons, too,

anxiety being one of them. Anxiety may come in different forms. It may be anxiety resulting from a change in environment, anxiety due to a crowd, or even separation anxiety. Since yawning is a way of calming themselves, your dog may exhibit excessive yawning when anxious. Many studies, such as this one, have listed yawning as part of the symptoms of anxiety in dogs. Whenever you notice your dog yawning, try making him as comfortable as possible. Many tools and toys allow you to do this easily, including those sold here, such as Cuddle Beds and Zen Chews.

When a dog yawns, it could also be a form of communication. For example, a dog may show indifference by yawning. When a dog comes up against an aggressive dog spoiling for a fight, it may yawn in response, showing that he doesn't care and doesn't want conflict. Yawning here is the dog saying, "Hey, I don't want any trouble. Move along." A dominant dog may also yawn to an anxious submissive one, showing that he is indifferent, calming the anxiety.

Dogs may also yawn because you are yawning, or another dog is yawning. This happens to dogs when other dogs or humans (especially those they know well) yawn. A situation when it happens is called contagious yawning, and it is a phenomenon that has been studied extensively in humans, but it affects dogs, too. People believe it's a sign of empathy.

So, now you know. When your dog is yawning, it could be for any of the reasons given above.

Puppy yawning on couch

Physiological Reasons Behind Your Dog's Yawning

If you look at all the reasons we have above on why your dog seems to yawn a lot, you will notice that they are primarily psychological; things that have to do with emotions and feelings.

But, could there be physical reasons why your dog yawns, which have to do more with the body than the mind?

Turns out dogs yawn for physiological reasons, just like we humans do. We yawn when we are tired or bored. Dogs, too, have physiological causes for their yawns.

The most obvious one is that dogs (just like humans) yawn when they are tired. Just as you would open your mouth wide and let rip big yawns when you come back from a hard day's work, your dog yawns too when tired. Veterinarian Dr. Sarah Ochoa, DVM, of DogLab, stated it thus: "Dogs, just like people, will yawn when they are tired." And dogs yawn in the same manner.

Scientists, including Andrew C. Gallup, Ph.D., have said that yawning stretches the jaw, causing an increase in blood flow in the neck, face, and head. The intake of breath is deeper than "normal" breathing, which causes a downward flow of the spinal fluid and blood from the brain. The cooler air that is inhaled during yawning enters the mouth, cooling the spinal fluid and blood. If the brain temperature is higher than usual, dogs (and humans too!) yawn to cool it down.

Interesting studies have also shown that yawning is influenced by brain size. Yes, brain size. This is linked to the cooling theory, as well. Gallup conducted another study with a colleague, Jorg Massen, where they found that the larger and more active the brain is, the more it needs to be cooled down, like those giant computers. So creatures with bigger brains yawn longer and more often than those with smaller brains. Basically, the larger the brain and the more brain neurons it has, the more the animal will yawn. How bad do you want to yawn right now?

People also yawn when they are dealing with sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is a sign of stress. So, when people (and dogs) are sleep-deprived, they are tired and stressed, so they yawn more. In this situation, yawning does different things:

  • It cools down the brain. When a dog is tired and stressed, the temperature of the brain increases, and the result of this is that the dog is less alert and attentive. For a way to cool down the brain, yawning becomes more frequent.
  • Yawning increases the heart rate to enhance brain function. The increased heart rate then typically increases cardiac output, which has been frequently found to improve blood flow and glucose supply to the brain, vital for brain function. You can detect this increase in heart rate by monitoring the dog's pulse rate when yawning.
  • Yawning increases the levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone that releases glucose into the body when there is stress, increasing the brain's use of glucose to function better.

So, if your dog hasn't gotten the sleep he needs and is tired, he may yawn more than usual because he is trying to stay alert and keep his brain working.

Emotional and Sociological Functions For Your Dogs Yawning

No one can say for certain why animals or humans yawn. For a seemingly simple act, yawning has been a somewhat hard nut for scientists to crack. They look at the effect yawning has on the body, and they draw inferences from there that are as accurate as they can be.

If you're still asking the question, why do dogs yawn? Keep on reading. Yawning serves many physical functions, but yawning also has some emotional or sociological effects that make scientists believe that it's not just physical.

As explained earlier, dogs yawn when stressed. Stress happens on both a physiological and emotional level. We demonstrated the physical level in the section above. Emotionally, when a dog feels stressed, yawning is meant to calm the dog down.

Dog yawns, while emotional, also play a sociological role. Like humans, dogs are social creatures. They originate from wolves, after all. Dogs yawning may be a way of exhibiting typical social cues.

We all know about contagious yawning. Someone yawns, so you yawn too. Sometimes, even seeing the word yawn can make you begin to yawn. This is most observable in contagious yawning. This yawning in humans is a sociological concept. Some studies have shown that humans who catch a yawn from another person have better social skills than others.

Contagious yawns are even believed to help show empathy with your fellow yawner. Scientifically, empathy is seen as the ability to sense other people's emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. In essence, empathy is the capability of individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others. Empathy is one of the most critical aspects of our social interactions (let's just say Ted Bundy was not a contagious yawner). It could be in things as simple as backing off when you notice a slight change in someone's demeanor to things as vivid as feeling a jolt in your little toe as you watch someone stub his. Empathy keeps our social interactions healthy and helps connect us, but it also helps solidify the relationship we already have with people around us. We exhibit a lot of empathy to people we already know and have a powerful emotional bond with. The greater the bond, the more empathy. So take your dog yawning after you do as a compliment.

Empathy is the same with dogs. Dog yawns exhibit empathy and are evidence that dogs feel what other dogs and other humans (especially their owners) feel. The University of Tokyo carried out a study that found that dogs yawned more when their owners yawned much less than they yawned when strangers did. As this study by the University of Portugal found, some dogs even yawned upon hearing a recording of their owners' yawns. These studies showed the emotional bond the dogs had with their owners. In essence, dogs yawn when they yawn because they may be feeling what they are feeling. In essence, the dog or puppy is exhibiting empathy towards their feelings.

Some scientists have said that contagious yawning may be a way to coordinate activities between animals who live together. This makes sense and can be a good explanation of why dogs can exhibit contagious yawning after their owners' yawn. Dogs and humans have lived together for between 14,000 and 30,000 years. Needless to say, there has been a long time for the phenomenon of contagious yawning to develop between dogs and humans.

Many more animals have demonstrated this yawning, and there have been many observed instances of cross-species contagious yawning. Chimps, for example, have been shown to yawn after a human yawn, a classic example of contagious yawning that happens between different species. This study, conducted by some professors at the University of California, was the first to observe elephants exhibit contagious yawning after a human yawn.

But, it's important to note that these studies are not definitive. The surest answer we have for why a dog yawns are stress and tiredness.

Dog yawning in flower field

Understanding the Body Language of Your Dog's Yawns

Since yawning can also be a sociological phenomenon, it makes sense that dogs will use it as some form of communication, especially with other dogs.

Humans have evolved ways to communicate through body language. Hunched shoulders, shifty eyes, folded arms, pursed lips, and so forth.

Dogs, too, also have body language. Tail wagging, raised hackles, baring their teeth, whale eyes, different ear positions, and so on are examples of such language. All of these come under nonverbal communication for dogs using body language. Yawning is a prominent part of that body language. What's more, just like humans, they use body language to communicate with other dogs. They also communicate with us since dogs share an emotional bond with their owners. We must always note any dog body language or, let's say, canine body language.

Yawning is a type of appeasement gesture or, in more straightforward language, a calming signal. Turid Rugaas has written a book on this topic. It's a dog's way of saying that he's not going to attack. If he faces a dog that has aggressive behavior or is jumpy, the dog's yawn can be a way of saying, "Calm down, it's all good." It's just like humans raising their arms to show they mean no harm. In terms of human interaction, if there is something that makes the dog anxious and defensive, he may yawn to indicate he doesn't want to attack. Say your two toddlers are fighting in front of the dog. The dog's awareness will be heightened, and he will prepare to defend himself or run away, but he may yawn to calm himself down.

Yawning, as we have said above, is a sign of indifference, too. Dominant dogs may yawn to show they are indifferent to submissive, anxious dogs around them, putting them at ease.

Bottom line: yawning can be a dog's way of communicating with you. Do you listen to dog body language? How were you able to notice the dog's body language?

How Can You Stop Your Dog From Yawning?

Yawning is a normal bodily function in both humans and dogs. Occasional yawning is healthy. But when it starts getting frequent, and in every situation, then perhaps you, as a dog owner, should begin to think twice about it.

Yawning is a calming gesture for dogs and indicates a stressful situation or induces anxiety in the dog.

Since yawning is involuntary, dog owners cannot actively stop their dogs from yawning. What dog owners can do instead is to make the conditions so that their dogs don't yawn so much. In essence, remove the dogs from stressful environments and try to make them feel less stressed.

So, how can you do this as a dog owner?

  • When and where does your dog yawn the most often? Pay attention and observe. Learning to read your dog's cues will help you understand their feelings at any given moment, even when they can't tell you.
  • Please, do what you can to remove the dog from that situation or make it easier for the dog. For example, if you notice your dog yawning when you stop to chat during your walks, then you might consider making your chats shorter or avoiding talking while you walk the dog. Another example, if the dog is yawning excessively in a dog training class, you could ask the instructor for a break and take your dog outside for a few minutes and give them some pets or a treat to help them settle down. Once your dog is feeling calmer, excessive yawning should taper off.

You could also work with a canine behaviorist to assess the yawning, especially if your dog suffers from chronic anxiety. The behaviorist should pinpoint what to do about the yawning, and soon, the exceeding yawning should reduce.

In conclusion, a dog yawning can mean a variety of things. It could imply that your dog loves you and is in tune with your feelings. It could mean that your dog is stressed or anxious. It could indicate that the dog is trying to avoid conflict. It could just be that the dog is tired. All those don't matter because you can't stop the dog from yawning. What you can do instead is be observant and know what's causing your dog's yawns. That way, you can know what to do about it. As a dog owner, it's all in your hands.