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Can a dog catch a yawn? Yip!

Canines yawn when humans do, a sign of empathy, a study finds.

August 09, 2008|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

If you're yawning right now, chances are your dog is about to do the same thing.

A study published in the journal Biology Letters this week found that human yawns are contagious to dogs, a sign that man's best friend may be capable of a rudimentary form of empathy.

To scientists, dogs have been a bit of a puzzle. Dogs are adept at reading human intentions and excel over other animals in picking up human hand gestures and other behavioral cues.

At the same time, though, they appear to lack a sense of self, considered a prerequisite for understanding the feelings of others.

Unlike chimpanzees and possibly elephants and dolphins, dogs do not recognize themselves in a mirror, a classic test of self-awareness.

The latest study demonstrates that dogs are not completely egocentric in their relationships with humans but possess "some low-level attending to what others feel," said Duke University anthropologist Brian Hare, who was not involved in the research.

"What's fascinating about this study is that you would not expect to find contagious yawning where you did not have self-awareness," he said.

Only humans and chimps have been known to contagiously yawn.

The study of 29 dogs was conducted at the University of London in two stages. First, each dog watched a male researcher perform a large yawn, and then, in the control portion of the experiment, the dogs took turns observing the same researcher merely open his mouth.

Seventy-two percent, or 21 of the 29 dogs, yawned after watching the researcher yawn -- higher than the 45% to 60% rate reported in humans and the 33% rate reported in chimps.

No dogs yawned during the control portion of the experiment.

"Dogs are not only reading and responding but may be sharing feelings with humans," said Atsushi Senju, a research fellow at the University of London's Birkbeck College and one of the study authors.

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denise.gellene@latimes.com

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