Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Dogs can 'catch' human yawns

Researchers in the UK report that pet dogs can 'catch' human yawns, the way humans can 'catch' yawns from each other:
The team found that 21 out of 29 dogs yawned when the stranger in front of them yawned - on average, dogs yawned 1.9 times. By contrast, no dogs yawned during the non-yawning condition. The researchers believe that these results are the first evidence that dogs have the capacity to empathise with humans; although the team could not rule out stress-induced yawning - they hope to in future studies.

Well, duh.

I'm pretty sure most dog owners have had the experience of passing a yawn along to Fido, and, for that matter, catching a yawn from Fido. And while I confess to being one of those folks who are apt to anthropomorphize dog behavior, it seems unlikely to me that this could possibly be the first evidence that dogs empathize with humans. Whether you call it empathy or a "sweet disposition," we humans have been selecting for this kind of dog for as long as we've been sharing our lives and homes with them.

Maybe signs of dog empathy are stronger or more frequent when they live around people whose body language frequently telegraphs fatigue, pain, or other distress. Our yellow lab seems particularly skilled at picking up when my MS is kicking my ass.

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