What’s In A Yawn?

You yawn when you’re tired and probably when you’re bored.  You even yawn when you see someone else yawning a lot.  And some athletes yawn to focus and stay calm before a competition.  Take a look at “Making The Case For the Pre-Race Yawn” for details on that. Olympic skater Apolo Ohno was well-known for his warm-up yawns.

Your dog also yawns—so what’ up with that? 

Dr. Brian Hare of Dognition fame found that some dogs yawn empathetically at their owners.  Just like people, some dogs seem to exhibit emotional contagion, which is related to empathy in adults.

You dog could also just be tired but dogs commonly yawn as a stress signal when they’re nervous, overwhelmed or frightened.  Sometimes they close their eyes as they yawn or even turn their head away from whatever they are finding to be stressful. The yawn can serve as a way to calm themselves down as well as a way to ask another dog for space. We need to understand this signal, recognize it and respect it by giving the dog the space that he needs.

Dogs who yawn as a stress signal, tend to yawn A LOT—one yawn after the other once they start.  The yawning is also out of context, meaning that he’s just woken up so you know that he’s not tired. So what should you do when your dog becomes a yawning machine?

  • Recognize this as one of your dog’s stress signals and pay attention. Look at where he is, who is close by, who is trying to interact with him, etc.
  • Increase space even if you have to remove the dog. A dog who is yawning in the face of a toddler who is up close to the dog, is begging for the toddler to retreat—honor that request.
  • Look at situations in which your dog commonly yawns—is it when people or dogs are up close, when strangers grab your dog’s collar and then pet him or when a child grabs his toy out of his mouth? Manage these situations until you can get a professional dog trainer to help.

Sometimes the dog can be desensitized to people being too close or can learn to easily give up a toy or chew without being nervous and sometimes the dog needs to be respected for who he is and managed with new people, especially children.

In any event, yawns are to be respected as one of many ways that dogs communicate. If your dog yawned at another dog, the other dog would probably leave…so give your yawner the space he asks for.  It all makes the photo here look a little different and not so cute, no?


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