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Contagious yawning in domestic dog puppies (Canis lupus familiaris): the effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on low-level imitation in dogs

Abstract

Contagious yawning is a well-documented phenomenon in humans and has recently attracted much attention from developmental and comparative sciences. The function, development and underlying mechanisms of the phenomenon, however, remain largely unclear. Contagious yawning has been demonstrated in dogs and several non-human primate species, and theoretically and empirically associated with empathy in humans and non-human primates. Evidence of emotional closeness modulating contagious yawning in dogs has, nonetheless, been contradictory. Humans show a developmental increase in susceptibility to yawn contagion, with typically developing children displaying a substantial increase at the age of four, when a number of cognitive abilities (e.g. accurate identification of others’ emotions) begin to clearly manifest. Explicit tests of yawn contagion in non-human animals have, however, thus far only involved adult individuals. Here, we report a study of the ontogeny of domestic dogs’ (Canis lupus familiaris) susceptibility to yawn contagion, and whether emotional closeness to the yawning model affects this. Thirty-five dogs, aged 4–14 months, observed a familiar and unfamiliar human repeatedly yawn or gape. The dogs yawned contagiously, but emotional closeness with the model did not affect the strength of contagion, raising questions as to recent evidence of emotionally modulated auditory contagious yawning in dogs. The dogs showed a developmental effect, with only dogs above 7 months evidencing contagion. The results support the notion of a developmental increase in dogs’ attention to others and identification of others’ emotional states and suggest that yawn contagion is underpinned by developmental processes shared by humans and other animals.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Tension yawns and ‘sleepy’ yawns are morphologically identical, only distinguished by the context and the co-occurrence of either, none or all of a number of associated behaviours, e.g. lip licking, scratching, body shaking (‘shaking it off’), panting, whimpering or sneezing.

  2. Analysis was based on 64 (rather than 70) trials, as the number of gapes could not be reliably coded in six trials (as the experimenter at times faced away from the camcorders).

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful to all the dogs and owners that participated in the study and thank Ramiro Joly-Mascheroni, Jordan Zlatev and two anonymous reviewers for ideas and comments on the manuscript. Experimental procedures complied with the Animal Behavior Society Guidelines for the Use of Animals in Research. The research was financially supported by the Centre for Cognitive Semiotics (CCS), Lund University and Elisabeth Rausings Minnesfond. Intellectually, the study has benefited from collaboration with the project “Precursors of Sign Use in Intersubjectivity and Imitation” (PSUII), Swedish Research Council.

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Correspondence to Elainie Alenkær Madsen.

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Madsen, E.A., Persson, T. Contagious yawning in domestic dog puppies (Canis lupus familiaris): the effect of ontogeny and emotional closeness on low-level imitation in dogs. Anim Cogn 16, 233–240 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-012-0568-9

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Keywords

  • Canis lupus familiaris
  • Yawning
  • Imitation
  • Contagion
  • Empathy
  • Development