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When a human yawns, it’s typically a signal that we’re either a) tired or b) bored. But with dogs, it’s a little different.
Not all dog yawns are created equal. And depending on how, when, and in what situation your dog yawns, it could mean a number of different things—some of which, as a pet parent, are important to pay attention to.
So what, exactly, are the different meanings of a dog’s yawn? What is your pet trying to tell you when they let a yawn loose in the car, during training, or right before bed? And how do you know if they’re using that yawn to try to send you a message?
What is a dog yawn?
So, before we jump into the different types of dog yawns—and what each of them might mean—let’s talk about what a dog yawn is.
A dog yawn is the same thing is a person yawn—it’s a reflex where the mouth opens wide and the lungs take a deep, involuntary inhale. Because it’s involuntary, there’s no way to control any aspect of a yawn—when it happens, how long it lasts, or how much air is inhaled. That’s true for humans and dogs.
There are a lot of theories about why both people and animals yawn (for example, as a response to temperature changes or as a way to wake up a brain that’s veering into “exhausted” territory), but science hasn’t come up with a definitive answer on what all the yawning is about.
That being said, let’s take a look at some of the strongest theories on why your dog may have a serious case of the yawns.
Your dog is yawning because they love you
You know how yawns can sometimes feel contagious? Well, that’s a real thing; humans are actually more likely to yawn when they see someone else (or even a picture of someone else!) yawning. And apparently, it’s a real thing for dogs, too. In other words, because humans are empathetic, they sense the yawn in their peer. It’s nearly impossible to measure a dog’s empathy, but it’s likely that yawning symbolizes a bond to their human.
A study outlined in the New York Times found that dogs can “catch” yawns from humans, which researchers believe may be a sign of bonding between canines and people. So, if you notice your dog yawning, it might just be because they’re taking a cue from you.
Your dog is yawning because they’re stressed
An occasional yawn is nothing to be concerned about—but if your dog is yawning excessively, it might be a sign of stress or anxiety.
Pay attention to when, where, and how often your dog is yawning. A stray yawn before bed or during a walk is fine. But if you notice your dog is yawning in rapid succession in situations that might be anxiety-inducing—like meeting a new person or attending a training class—chances are, those yawns are a signal your pet is feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.
For instance, one of my colleagues here at Rover has noticed that her dog, Scout, yawns repeatedly whenever she tries to put anything over her head. She’s since stopped trying to dress Scout because the signs of distress are too obvious. (So much for that adorable spring dog hoodie, Scout. Oh, the photo ops that could have been!) Learning to read your dog’s cues will help you understand their feelings at any given moment, even when they can’t tell you.
If you sense your dog is yawning because of stress, do what you can to remove them from the stressful situation and help them calm down. For example, if they’re stress yawning in a training class, ask the instructor for a break and take your dog outside for a few minutes and give them some pets or a treat to help them settle down. Once your dog is feeling calmer, the excessive yawning should taper off.
If your dog suffers from chronic anxiety, consider working with a canine behaviorist. Your vet or trainer can point you to some in your area.
Your dog is yawning to avoid conflict
Your dog’s yawn might also be a way to avoid conflict. Yawns may be a sign of passivity; so, if your dog yawns in response to an altercation with a larger or more aggressive dog, it could just be their way of saying “I don’t want any trouble.”
Yawning is one of the known dog calming signals, which are designed to tell other dogs something like, “let’s just chill.” Canine behaviorist Amber Drake explains more about calming signals in this guide.
Your dog is yawning because they’re tired
Finally, and most obviously: yawning means sleepiness. One of the most common reasons a dog might be yawning is also one of the most common reasons a human might be yawning. And that’s because they’re tired.
Your dog’s yawn may just mean that they’ve had a long day and are ready to go to sleep. If your dog has a reason to be tired—like spending the afternoon at the dog park or running circles around your home—or if they let out a big yawn right as they curl up to call it a night, chances are, the yawn is just a signal they’re feeling sleepy.
When yawning is a cause for concern
Like human yawns, most dog yawns are completely benign. If your dog lets loose an occasional yawn when they’re bored or tired, it’s nothing to be concerned about.
But if you notice your dog is yawning often or in rapid succession, you definitely want to pay attention. Like we mentioned earlier, excessive yawning—or a string of yawns one right after the other—can be a signal that your dog is in distress. If you’re in a situation that’s clearly stressful for your pet, remove them from the situation. If your dog is stress yawning all the time, that may be a signal of a larger problem (like separation anxiety).
If that’s the case, the best thing you can do is consult with a vet or professional trainer. Together, you can come up with a plan to relieve your dog’s chronic stress—and get all that yawning under control.
Looking for more insight into your dog’s thoughts and feelings? Start with Dr. Stanley Coren’s indispensable How Dogs Think on dog psychology and Dr. Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog, all about dog emotions.
You may also like:
- How to Know if Your Dog Is Bonded to You
- 5 Common Dog Fears and How to Help
- Learn to Read the Magic of Dog Calming Signals
- 5 Keys to Understanding a Dog’s Emotions
- 9 Soothing Toys for Anxious Dogs