Dogs and Empathy!

If you own a dog, have you ever noticed that your dog yawns when they see you yawn? A recent study on how often dogs yawn around their owners suggests that they may experience empathy.
Teresa Romero and her research team believe that dogs show that they are emotionally connected to people through their yawning, despite that yawning can also be caused by a dog’s mild stress or anxiety. Therefore, Romero and her team set up an experiment in which 25 pet dogs watched both strangers and their owners yawn – or at least pretend to yawn. In order to rule out stress or anxiety as a reason behind the dog’s choice to yawn and copy humans, Romero and her team studied the heartbeats of each dog. They saw no significant differences in the dog’s heartbeats, and the team concluded that the dog’s yawing was in response to their owners.

At the end of the study, the team of researchers found that the dogs yawned more in response to their owner’s legitimate yawns versus their pretend yawns. This was found to be significant because in a similar study, it was discovered that people yawn more in response to people they care about most. This could be due to people empathizing with people who may yawn because they are stressed, anxious, bored, or tired.
What would make this study more interesting is if it included mirror neurons, which have been recognized as a cornerstone of human empathy, language, and other important processes. So how do mirror neurons determine empathy? In our brains are regular motor command neurons. They fire and create a sequence of muscle movements that allow us to reach out and grab something or do some other action. After years of research, a subset of these motor command neurons in our brains were found to fire when someone simply watches the actions or emotional responses of another person. For example, if you were to see someone get pricked by a needle, you might flinch or experience pain. In this situation, mirror neurons are creating a theory of your intentions, which is important for all kinds of social interaction, including empathy.

It is important to note that perhaps both dogs and humans experience empathy towards those important to their lives via contagious yawning. Also, I would not be surprised to find that the mirror neurons in dogs fire in response to their owner’s actions as a sign of empathy.

7 thoughts on “Dogs and Empathy!

  1. amcclanahan2016

    I would be curious to know if someone who lacks empathy, i.e. someone with antisocial tendencies, still yawns in response to others. This would make is seem that it’s a physiological reaction rather than an emotional one if this were true.

    1. kathrynarntsen

      It is fascinating to think about how dogs can differentiate their owners legitimate yawns from pretend yawns and how they yawn more in response to people they care about. I have noticed that my dog would do this but i never thought about how empathy plays a role in this. Mirror neurons and the ways they affect emotions is an interesting topic. As you said, I wish that they talked about this more in the study but I like how you brought in information that they left out. I would like to learn more about empathy in dogs and how yawning plays a role.

      1. sophiakovalcik22 Post author

        I agree, I think that they would have included mirror neurons if the topic hasn’t been so debated. After all, some people think they have a huge impact on empathy, others would disagree.

  2. chadvelezis

    I am also trying to rationalize how a dog can distinguish between a legitimate and fake yawn. Perhaps it ties into mirror neurons, specifically if they activate during a forced yawn. This makes me wonder if dogs can detect subtle differences in expression when their owner fake yawns. Regardless, there is no doubt that they possess empathetic tendencies that often reflect the emotions or behaviors their owners are eliciting. Really fascinating area of study!

  3. cookcl

    I love dogs and have one of my own so this post caught my eye. I had heard about dogs yawning in response to their owners yawning but had no idea that it could be tied to empathy. I also find it very interesting that they may respond different to a stranger than to their owner and like someone said above, they can tell a fake yawn from a real one. Now I want to go try and make my dog yawn.

  4. aupadhya

    I was not aware that dogs mirror yawns the same way that humans do! It’s also cool that dogs can tell the difference between fake and real yawns, and that determines whether or not they will mirror the yawn. It’s also really interesting that you brought up mirror neurons. I would like to see a study where researchers analyzed the role that mirror neurons play in the action of mirroring a yawn. I wonder if there is a neurological explanation behind it.

Comments are closed.