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. 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 4 when they also learn to read emotional cues.
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 7 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.
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 would like to see their finding confirmed by other studies.