Can Dogs Fake Yawn?

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Introduction

They say yawning is infectious, but surely that's yawning between people? A more intriguing thought is that dogs might also be 'infected' by human yawns. Check it out! Try yawning and then see if your dog copies. 

You may even have noticed how the dogs yawn in a number of circumstances, including after a good night's sleep, so surely they aren't still tired. All of which raises the question of if dog's can fake yawn, and if so, why would they bother? 

Actually, this isn't such a strange question as it seems because as you'll shortly learn, yawning plays a role in canine communication. Plus, if you really want to, you can teach your dog to yawn on cue by putting the action on command. 

Signs of a Dog Faking a Yawn

There are valid times when you expect a dog to yawn, such as when they are tired. But if they yawn at other times, why would they do this?  It can be argued that anytime a dog yawns when they are not weary, it is a fake yawn - after all, why do they need to yawn if they are not tired?

The answer is that dogs will fake yawn for a variety of reasons. It might be they are echoing your behavior and mirroring what you do in order to fit in. However, another important reason dogs fake yawn is because they are anxious or fearful. To prove a point, watch the dogs in a vet's waiting room. It would be very surprising if a fair percentage of them weren't yawning. 

This means that, to a certain extent, fake yawns depend on the dog's temperament and how they respond to stress. For example, a frightened, submissive dog is more likely to fake yawn and lick their lips than a bolshy aggressive dog who will go on the offensive as a means of protecting themself. 

When deciding if your dog is fake yawning or merely tired, take into account their recent activity (have they just been asleep or have they been for a long run) and their circumstances (are they relaxed in front of the TV or strung out on their nerves at the vet.) This will help you decide. 

Body Language

If you think your dog may be fake yawning, look for the following:
  • Shaking
  • Cowering
  • Panting
  • Pacing
  • Lip licking

Other Signs

Always interpret yawning in light of the dog as a whole. Other clues that this is a fake yawn include:
  • Trembling
  • Averted Head
  • Rolling Over
  • Lip Licking

History of Dogs and Fake Yawning

Much of our knowledge of yawning (fake or otherwise) comes from the field of human psychology. It's believed that the humble act of yawning was an evolutionary adaptation to help ensure the survival of the species. In fact, infectious yawning is an example of empathy, where one person witnesses the actions of another and repeats it out of empathy. Thus, yawning helps to bond a group together. 

In addition, yawning helps increase the blood supply to the brain and there helps raise levels of alertness. At a time when a person might be under threat, bizarrely, yawning helps get them ready for fight or flight. Not only that, but those around them also pick up on the action and yawn, despite not being tired. 

This unifies the group and increases their awareness of what's going on around them. This could make the difference between being alert to a life-threatening threat or not. 

With regards to dogs, if you consider a yawn that is not born of fatigue as a fake yawn, then as a means of communication in a pack, they are just a likely to yawn as people are. 

Science of Dogs and Fake Yawning

Don't be deceived! You may think yawning in dogs (and people!) is all about being tired, but psychologists tell is this is not the case. There is considerable knowledge about the science of yawning from the human field, and as it happens dogs are no different. 

To prove a point, psychologists devise observational tests where people are put in a room with others, and then fake yawn in order to see what happens. The result is that the planted, fake yawn quickly spreads around the room. Interestingly, those people who also score highly on empathy tests, are those most likely to pick up on the yawn and repeat it. 

By repeating the yawn, this acts as a subconscious signal that you understood the other person and are empathetic to them. With our canine companions, this may explain why they fake yawn when stressed or anxious - as a sort of cry for help. It is signaling to those around that they are uncomfortable and aren't a threat to anyone, in the hope that the threat will go away. 

This is backed up by MRI scans of people when fake yawning. The scans show that specific areas of the brain light up, which are involved in the processing of previous memories or 'empathy'. Thus, the fake yawn is in some small way acknowledging the situation the other person is in. 

Training a Dog to Fake Yawn

Whilst you can't tell a dog to fake yawn, it is possible to put the action on cue. 

To do this you need to be vigilant for the dog yawning, and immediately mark the behavior and reward it. Clicker training is ideal for this as you can click immediately when the dog yawns. Since you have previously taught the dog that the click means a reward is due, the dog then logs away the information, "Hey, when I yawn, I get a reward." 

When you click those occasional yawns often enough, pretty soon the dog starts to offer you yawns. When they do this, promote this behavior by saying "Yes" in an excited voice. As they become more confident about offering up fake yawns, you can add a cue word. 

Say "Yawn" as soon as they start to open their mouth, and then click and reward. Again, they'll quickly learn to link the word "Yawn" to opening their mouth and anticipating what you want. 

Of course, this is a lengthy process and requires you to be very vigilant for those initial yawns. The more often you can capture and yawn and praise it, the quicker your pet pal will learn. However, be prepared for this one to take a while to learn, especially if your four-legger isn't in the habit of yawning much! 

How to React to a Dog's Fake Yawn:

  • Think about the situation in which the dog is yawning and what he's trying to tell you. For example, if your dog is at the vet's office and yawns repeatedly, this tells you he's stressed. Plan how you are going to alleviate this stress. Perhaps, ask to take the dog for a short walk and ask the receptionist to call when your turn is next.

We Want to Hear About Your Dog Fake Yawning!