You let out a big yawn. Then you notice your dog doing the same thing. Did your dog just copy you? Well, it’s certainly possible. Research shows that dogs may automatically yawn when they see a person they love yawn  — a social response known as “contagious yawning.” But there are many other reasons why a dog might make a yawning motion.
Okay, so why do dogs yawn? What does a dog yawn look like? And what does it mean? Let’s delve into what’s known — and what still needs to be discovered — about dog yawning.
Do Dogs Yawn?
Yes, dogs yawn. And their yawns look a lot like human yawns, says Dr. Janet Cutler, an animal behaviorist and professional dog trainer at Landmark Behavior.
“Dogs yawn very similarly to people, opening their mouths wide and breathing in, and you’ll often see their tongue curl a little,” Dr. Cutler explains.
It’s not just dogs and humans who yawn alike. Dr. Rosalind Wrightson, a dog behaviorist, a veterinary surgeon, and owner of Wright Behavior, says that the physiological behavior of yawning can be found in a wide range of species.
“It’s quite an old behavior that you see in reptiles and birds as well as mammals,” says Dr. Wrightson. “As we all know, we tend to yawn when we’re tired, and that’s thought to be an effort of the body to try and increase our alertness.”
Why Do Dogs Yawn?
There is ongoing debate about why dogs yawn, and more research needs to be conducted on this phenomenon. But most experts seem to agree that dogs yawn for physiological, behavioral, or social reasons.
Yawning as a physiological response is connected to feeling tired. “Physiologically, it has been proposed that yawning helps to increase arousal, including heart rate,” says Dr. Cutler.
Experts also believe dogs yawn for different behavioral reasons. For instance, it’s theorized that they yawn when they’re scared, stressed, uncomfortable, bored, or even content.
Last but not least, some research suggests that yawning could be a communication tool, meant to show those around them how they are feeling. According to a book written by Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas, yawning is one of several “calming signals” that a dog may display to communicate their discomfort in certain situations, such as a visit to the veterinary clinic. Dr. Wrightson says that a dog who yawns in the vet’s office may be “indicating that they’re stressed,” and that pet parents should be aware that their dog may be trying to communicate this to them.
What Does It Mean When a Dog Yawns?
If you see your dog yawning a lot, it could mean many different things. Your dog might be tired, stressed, content, or relaxed. Or the yawn could simply be an unconscious, physiological response of their bodies in response to tiredness.
To figure out why your dog is yawning, you need to examine the whole situation. “You need to look at the dog’s overall body language,” says Dr. Wrightson. “If they just flopped out of bed and [are] yawning, they are probably just tired. But if you look at a dog and you see other signs of stress as well — tense ears and a tense face, and they’re yawning — you need to think what could be causing this.”
One situation that might be tricky to interpret is if a dog yawns while you pet them. After all, this might be a positive situation for you — but possibly not for the dog.
“A dog could yawn when you pet them because they’re relaxed and possibly sleepy, or they could be yawning because they are stressed and uncomfortable with you being near and petting,” says Dr. Cutler. “In order to tell the difference, it’s important to look at the rest of their body.”
If the dog’s body is loose or floppy, this indicates that they are relaxed, she says. But if there is stiffness in their body or they’re showing other signs of discomfort, such as lip licking, they’re probably not enjoying being pet.
It also might be hard for you to know why a dog yawns when you talk to them in a friendly way.
Dr. Wrightson says it’s likely that a yawning dog in this situation is feeling “conflicted about the intensity of that interaction.”
“Sometimes sustained eye contact can be difficult for dogs,” she continues. “So if you’ve got a good relationship with your dog, and they really trust you, then I’m sure they wouldn’t mind you looking at them for a long time. But if a stranger comes up and they’re like, ‘Oh what a lovely dog, you’re so cute,’ and they’re talking to them and really staring at them, maybe even looming over them … you could definitely see yawning in that situation.”
Even if it’s your own dog, adds Dr. Wrightson, uncertainty can cause a yawning reaction. “It could be your pet dog and they’re perfectly happy in your relationship, but they’re unsure about what’s going to happen next,” she explains. “If my dog is really hoping for a walk and we’re kind of walking in the direction of the lead, she might yawn because she feels a bit conflicted.”
Should You Worry About Dog Yawning?
In most cases, no, you don’t need to worry.
Dr. Pieter Vanacker, a veterinary surgeon at AniCura Veterinary Center Anthemis in Kapelle-op-den-Bos, Belgium, says that in most cases, yawning in dogs is not connected with any medical conditions.
However, he says that in some situations, a dog yawning excessively could indicate a problem with the jaw. “They might be stretching the jaw because they have a cramp in the muscle,” he notes.
If you are in doubt, or if you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior, always check with your veterinarian. “Any big changes in behavior could be a sign of a medical concern, so it’s important to rule that out,” explains Dr. Cutler.
Or it could just be that your pup is a habitual yawner. “If it’s something your dog has always done, then it’s possible they just yawn a lot,” Dr. Cutler adds. “It’s also important to look at the rest of their body language to make sure there aren’t any signs of stress that could be causing them to yawn excessively.”
- Romero, Teresa et al. “Familiarity bias and physiological responses in contagious yawning by dogs support link to empathy.” PloS one vol. 8,8 e71365. 7 Aug. 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071365