Behavioral and developmental scientists have begun to research the emotional intricacies of our closest animal companions: domesticated dogs. Researchers believe that they have a capacity to develop emotional bonds with humans and can communicate to us through non-verbal signals and body language due to their ability to comprehend human communication (Quervel-Chaumette, et al., 2016). Canines have been shown to express distress to the sound of another dog’s whine and can engage in rapid facial mimicry with other canines, which are both signs of a basic level of empathy. Darwin may have been correct when he speculated that the facial expressions seen in humans and other social animals show that we have a close genetic heritage (Palagi & Scopa, 2017). The phenomenon of contagious yawning has been used in experiments to test for empathy in canines because it is the only species that has displayed this ability, aside from primates (Silva, et al., 2012). Numerous studies have shown promising results, including Madsen & Persson (2013) who found that individuals with an empathy-related disorder, such as autism or schizophrenia, as well solitary species like the tortoise show significantly less contagious yawning in experimental trials. Any dog owner would assure you that “dogs are attached to human caregivers, are attentive to human eyes, and can use gestures such as pointing and gazing to find food” (p. 155), but what does that imply about their emotional intelligence? (Yong & Ruffman, 2014). Although contagious yawning is a widely documented and studied behavior, experts are still in dispute over its underlying mechanisms and functions.
While there is ample support for the hypothesis that empathy is at the root of contagious yawning, some researchers believe that less cognitively-stringent processes are behind this behavior. The contagion-only hypothesis states that contagious yawning is merely “some behavioral fixed action pattern that is hard-wired and simply needs a releasing stimulus” (Silva, et al., 2012, p. 722). This would mean that contagious yawning is a meaningless reflex instead of a reaction ingrained with empathy. The experiment conducted by O’Hara & Reeve that did not show evidence for empathy-based yawning contained fundamental flaws that likely skewed their results, including dog distractibility, short length of auditory stimuli, and small sample size. Because dogs were urged to concentration on a live model or an LCD screen in order to receive the visual yawn stimuli, it is very likely that their attention was diverted from the task and that they were not able to properly measure which dogs could contagiously yawn. This experiment also had short periods of exposure to the stimuli (3 min) and did not have large enough sample sizes (19 dogs), which creates a larger margin of error and produces misleading results (Madsen & Persson, 2013). Opposed to our experiment, O’Hara & Reeve included dogs from rescue shelters, so their subjects had a higher likelihood of holding negative views towards humans that may have caused them to express less concern because that emotional attachment to their owner did not exist. Some believe that the positive results of this cross-species study were instead due to tension yawns, which are induced by an uncertain environment. Our study took measures to prevent the subjects from becoming uneasy and allowed the identification tension yawns by video recording every experimental session for review. For the purpose of obtaining unbiased and accurate data, we designed our study to overcome these experimental limitations.
The intention of our experiment was to test whether dogs have a higher chance of contagiously yawning when perceiving a yawn from a familiar individual- which would indicate that it is connected to empathy. Ninety-five dogs were exposed to four experimental conditions: familiar yawns and unfamiliar yawns, which were called ‘yawn stimuli’, and familiar control sounds and unfamiliar control sounds, which were called ‘control stimuli’. Eighty-eight percent of dogs yawned contagiously at least once throughout the experiment and significantly more dogs reacted to familiar yawns compared to unfamiliar yawns. This supports the idea that social modulation plays a role in the infectiousness of yawns because it shows a positive correlation between familiarity and emotional contagious yawning. Dogs were found to pay a similar amount of attention to the familiar and unfamiliar yawn stimuli, which shows that attention differences were not accountable for the contagious yawning. Because no subjects produced any tension yawns during the duration of the experiment, anxiety did not generate any false positives in our study. Due to the fact that females produced significantly more contagious yawns than males, we theorize that this intensified ability is hardwired in females’ predisposition for empathy. The developmental effect found in dogs below the age of seven months was expected because these social-cognitive skills normally develop in children around the ages of four to five years old (Madsen & Persson, 2013). Puppies have been shown to generalize yawn stimuli before being able to differentiate between a familiar and unfamiliar yawn, so this could explain why some younger dogs could not react to yawn stimuli. With age and experience, dogs gain the skills of identifying affective states and detecting influxes in the environment- which are reflected in their increasing accuracy to discriminate between types of contagious yawns. It has been suggested that an accumulating ‘spill-over effect’ causes a delay in younger dogs’ reaction time to yawn stimuli, which could have influenced the measurement of contagious yawning. Further research would benefit from including a post-yawn phase in which these delayed reactions can be recorded.
The conclusions we drew in this study are encouraged to be utilized to advance research of animal cognition in the future. To further expand our experiment, researchers could test whether different traits such as abuse history and temperament have an effect on the expression of contagious yawning. Future studies should also refrain from using laptops or television screens to administer tests to dogs because visual mediums have proven to be ineffective, while live models better communicate experimental signals (Madsen & Persson, 2017). An example of a possible study to conduct is to test specifically for sympathetic concern in dogs and wolves by observing if the dog offers comforting behavior in reaction to a human or conspecific in distress. The hypothesis called “Emotion Mimicry in Context, predicts that human subjects mimic an emotion only if they share the perspective that gave rise to that specific emotion” (Palagi, et al., 2015). This would be an excellent concept to explore in a study with canines to test if a dog’s tiredness effects their level of contagious yawning. This phenomenon could have arisen because this creates a positive feedback loop where the imitation of behavior acts as the reward for having the same behavior, so individuals are more likely to share the same emotions because it provides a reinforcement. Experiments such as these would help us improve our relationships and provide a better well-being for dogs. They could also help to provide better methods of choosing dogs for jobs such as being a therapy dog, a seeing eye dog, or reading dogs. Finally, research on rudimentary animal empathy can give us a glimpse of how it develops in humans and can help us understand our sophisticated experience of empathy. When investigating an intricate emotional phenomenon such as empathy, it is often best to start at the beginning of it all.