When do we first learn to express empathy? That’s a question psychologists have been probing for some time by, among other things, examining when we learn to imitate yawns. Dogs, too, have been found in some studies to yawn when their owners yawn, but does it mean they’re feeling empathy for the ones who care for them?
Scientists first came to the conclusion that “yawn contagion”—as they call it—was related to human empathy when they found that toddlers didn’t have it. Research suggests kids learn to yawn in response to others beginning at age four; that’s also when a number of cognitive abilities, such as reading emotional cues from facial expressions, begin to manifest themselves.
Is it possible that puppies also have to learn that yawns are contagious? A new study published in the journal Animal Cognition suggests yes. Swedish researchers selected 35 ordinary house dogs of various breeds between 4 and 14 months of age and sat them in front of their owners to see whether they would respond to fake yawns—a gaping mouth with no sounds such as inhaling and exhaling of air—and to realistic yawns that seemed convincing.
The researchers found that dogs under seven months didn’t exhibit much contagious yawning: they showed a delayed response to a yawn, sometimes within five minutes, which could have been their way of staying calm. (Check out the video above.) And nearly half the puppies yawned in response to fake yawns, which none of the older dogs did.
Does all this prove that dogs, like humans, develop empathy over time? Not by a long shot, concluded the study authors, but it leaves open the possibility. They’d like to see their finding confirmed by other studies.