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Six Reasons Why Dogs Yawn

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

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What are some reasons for dog yawning? We all know what yawning is all about, but when dogs yawn, we can often feel puzzled. Do dogs yawn just like us when they are tired? Or is there more to it? What's really in a yawn?

In humans, we consider yawning a reflex where we will deeply inhale air and then exhale. We may also stretch our arms as we yawn. As we yawn, we also stretch out the Eustachian tube and that explains why may hear crackling sounds.

As humans, we typically yawn before and after sleeping, when we're bored, and sometimes even when we're hungry, but there's more to it if you're wondering what triggers yawning from a functionary or evolutionary standpoint. The real causes for yawning have ultimately puzzled scientists for many years. Yet, fish, snakes, people and even babies in the womb do it! Here are some theories:

  • Replenish Oxygen. One theory has it that we yawn when our blood contains high levels of carbon dioxide and we need to replenish on oxygen. Indeed, when we yawn our intake of oxygen is superior to when we breath normally.
  • Stretching. Another theory assumes that we just need to stretch the muscles of our jaw, tongue and throat, and, while we're at it, our arms and torso.
  • Increase Alertness. Another interesting theory assumes that we yawn to increase alertness. It was observed that paratroopers tend to yawn prior to exiting the plane. It appears that yawning improves mental efficiency, a sort of "rebooting the brain," if you will. It appears that Olympic athletes also do this before a race.
  • Cooling the Brain. Another theory states that yawning is our way to regulate the temperature of our brains. Yes, perhaps our brains do really start smoking when we think too much! Jokes aside, a study was done and it was found that people that had cold packs attached to their foreheads were less susceptible to yawning after watching a video of people yawning.
  • Contagious Behavior. And then we have yawning because we see somebody yawning. Sometimes even talking about yawning can make us yawn. Have you been yawning as you have been reading this article? If so, I hope it's from all the yawn talk and not from boredom! Interestingly, in 1508 Erasmus, a teacher, theologian and priest wrote, "One man's yawning makes another yawn."

So now that we have seen reasons why humans may yawn, let's see why dogs are believed to yawn. As with humans, more research is needed on this, but dog yawning seems to ultimately share some similarities with human yawning.

"Yawning in public may be viewed as a relatively meaningless (or impolite) behavior among humans; it is conversation and conciliation when used by or directed to dogs."

— Stanley Coren

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Six Reasons Why Dogs Yawn

Of course, like us, dogs may yawn after taking a nap and when transitioning from rest to activity and from activity to rest. But with dogs, the causes for yawning may get a tad bit less complicated than in humans.

For starters, dogs typically don't systematically reason ahead of time as the Olympic athletes do before competing, so they won't be yawning to "reboot their brain" prior to a stressful event, unless you engage in a series of behaviors that your dog has chained together triggering anticipatory stress.

Dogs are more likely to yawn when they confront near present situations. Norwegian dog expert Turi Rugaas, author of the famous book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, lists yawning as a calming signal. Calming signals occur in certain situations to appease, provide pacification efforts to resolve conflicts and to communicate stress.

Pay close attention to the context of your dog's yawns. Most likely, something that made your dog uneasy triggered it. You therefore may often see your dog yawn in these particular situations.

Stressful Situations

Dogs are more likely to yawn when they are affected by chronic stress and are faced with a disturbance compared to dogs that are in low-stress environments, according to a study in 2000 by Beerda et al. The yawn may also have a calming effect in the dog. Following are possible triggers that may cause a dog to yawn.

  • When you hug your dog
  • When somebody looms over him
  • When you scold your dog
  • When you stare at your dog
  • When you get close to take pictures of him
  • When he's at the vet's office getting examined
  • When he is approached abruptly and directly
  • When being picked up
  • When training gets demanding, boring, long or too repetitive
  • When your dog is exposed to a tense and loud disagreement among people
  • When a dog is physically restrained

Pacification Events

As mentioned, your dog may yawn to demonstrate he's not a threat. My Rottweiler will often yawn and sniff the ground when she is exposed to dogs that are fearful and defensive. In doggy language, she is trying to tell the new dog that she has peaceful intentions. You may see yawning therefore in the following events:

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  • Your dog meets a new dog and yawns
  • A dog growls at your dog and your dog moves away and yawns
  • Your dog walks past a fence with barking dogs

Anticipatory Events

Sometimes dogs may yawn when they are excited to engage in an activity they look forward to and grow a bit impatient from all the built-up anticipation. If a dog's environment isn't much stimulating to begin with, certain times of the day may build up anticipation such as feeding time, play time or when the owner comes home.

A yawn in these contexts is the dog's way of controlling his enthusiasm, if you will. In dogs with enough environmental stimulation, the anticipation may get high when there are pauses in between a chain of predictable events. You may therefore see yawning in these contexts:

  • You get stopped on a walk to chit-chat with a neighbor and your dog gets impatient to get going.
  • You grab the leash, your dog is excited to go out, but then you sit on the coach to answer a phone call.
  • You are standing by the box of dog treats but don't get anything out of the box for your dog.
  • You are starting to prepare your dog's dinner and your dog is impatient if you're moving too slow.
  • Your dog is waiting for you to get his toy so he looks at you, but you ignore him

Confusing Events

Dogs don't speak English and we don't speak dog, so it's quite normal for dogs and humans to misunderstand each other. You may see dogs at times yawn when they aren't too sure about what message you are trying to convey or just to calm you down if you're upset with him. You may see this type of yawning in these contexts:

  • You ask your dog a command he isn't familiar with.
  • Another dog bumps into your dog by accident when playing with another dog and your dog yawns.

Conflicting Events

At times, dogs may feel in conflict. They may have several choices and instead of picking one, they engage in a displacement behavior. Sometimes dogs use yawning as a way of buying time to decide their next move when dealing with inner conflict or to displace their stress.

Following are some examples of yawning used as a displacement behavior. Note that often we really cannot interpret what a dog is thinking, so we can only make assumptions based on the contexts in which these behaviors are happening.

  • Your dog is stressed because a child took his toy away; instead of lunging to get it back, he yawns.
  • Your dog wants to greet another dog but he's tied up, so he yawns instead.
  • Your dog is interested in a toy your other dog has, but doesn't want to move from the cozy bed so he yawns instead.
  • Your dog is cornered and because his fleeing option is gone and he doesn't want to engage in fight, so he may yawn instead

Medical Problems

At times, dogs yawning may even stem from a medical problem. It is not unheard of for dogs to yawn when they have an ear problem or some sort of pain in their jaw. Some dogs may be yawning and licking their lips or yawning and swallowing.

In some cases, yawning may stem from some type of ongoing issue affecting the dog's throat/esophagus region either caused by acid reflux, a possible stricture or a case of laryngeal paralysis.

As noted, dogs yawn in different contexts and situations. Paying attention to your dog's behavior is important so you can make necessary changes to make your relationship and bond better than before.

For further reading

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2015 Adrienne Farricelli

When does your dog yawn? Share your thoughts!

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on March 10, 2015:

My dog yawns, but I have not been able to determine what causes it. Mostly, it is when we are returning home from a long hike and are close to our home. I think he doesn't like coming back home or is perhaps anticipating that he is going to be trapped inside for another day.

Very useful hub, found awesome!

Barbara Badder from USA on March 09, 2015:

I thought it was always a sign of friendship. I learned other reasons our dog yawns. Thanks for the article.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on March 09, 2015:

This truly is one of the most confusing dog behaviors, simply because we equate it with our human yawning and it can have soooo many meanings! Fortunately for me, I mostly see my dogs yawning when they're winding down (finally!) at the end of the day. Voted up, useful, interesting and sharing!

Bob Bamberg on March 09, 2015:

It's an interesting phenomenon to explore, isn't it Adrienne? But, when you come right down to it, if you ask a human, "Why did you just yawn?" most won't have a definitive answer because the yawn is usually involuntary.

I never really thought about why I yawn because they just happen...but I get stuffed up in large gatherings, such as wedding receptions, banquets, etc. At those times, I yawn like crazy. When I step outside for a breath of fresh air, my head clears and the yawning stops.

And Erasmus was right! Interesting hub. Voted up and interesting.

Mary Craig from New York on March 08, 2015:

Believe it or not I don't think I've ever seen my dog yawn! Being a Min Pin he thinks he's always in control of the situation and if you don't like it that's your problem.

However, this was very interesting as yawning is always a good topic of conversation.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

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