A Yawn Means More Than Fatigue to Your Agility Dog
Dogs have many “calming” signals or “appeasement gesture” and one of those is the yawn. Dogs use the yawn as a way to deflect a threat. It is the dog’s way of saying that they feel threatened or uncertain, but they are not going to attack and are actually trying to avoid conflict. It can follow an averted gaze or may be given when others are fighting. For example, if you get into an argument in front of or near your dog they may show their anxiety over the situation by yawning.
Getting to know your dog includes knowing what causes them anxiety and what situations threaten them. If you watch your dog for yawning behaviors you may just learn something new about your dog. Some owners will “talk” back to their dogs with a yawn and have noticed it helps calm their dog down. You may also catch your dog responding to your yawn in like manner. Science now thinks this proves a dog’s ability to empathize with humans. However, it doesn’t mean they empathize with all humans equally.
Behavioral biologist Karine Silva and her team carried out a recent study at the University of Porto in Portugal which tested 29 dogs that had lived with their owners for at least six months. They played recordings of dog owners yawning, an unfamiliar woman yawning and a computer-simulated yawn. Almost 50% of the dogs yawned when listening to the recorded human yawning. However, when listening to their owners yawn the dogs were about five times more likely to yawn in return. A previous experiment at the University of London’s Birkbeck College found dogs yawn about 75 percent of the time after seeing a human yawn.
Dogs do yawn for a variety of other reasons as well such as helping to cool off the brain and providing it with extra oxygen as well as boosting the heart rate. Just like yawning can calm a dog it can also charge them. Have you ever seen your dog yawn at the start line of a course? It can mean they are excited or are getting ready to navigate the course instead of meaning they are stressed. While yawning during training often signals stress or frustration at trying to please their master but not knowing how.
So, the next time you see your dog yawn take in the whole picture to learn when your dog is telling you he is stressed or threatened, excited and ready to run, or frustrated and needs a break. Also, watch and see if you dog mimics your yawn as a means to let you know he empathizes with you.