We’ve all noticed that yawns seem contagious. No doubt most readers recall a few occasions when, after the yawns have spread around the room, their contagious character becomes the topic of conversation.
It will come as no surprise, then, that researchers have been looking into the matter. This morning I read—in my beloved Science News (in whose pages I’ve read about star-steering dung beetles, potent proteins, wild cosmologists, and the like)—that dogs can catch our yawns, just as other people do.
Yawning triggers neural circuits involved in social skills and empathy, so it shouldn’t be surprising that dogs—who are wonderfully keen readers of human social cues—”pick up on human yawns.” Researchers at the University of Tokyo also found that dogs are more likely “to yawn in response to their owner’s yawn than to a stranger’s. This bias toward familiar people suggests that a rudimentary form of empathy may be at work in dog brains, the researchers conclude.”
Consider that last sentence. Consider how absurd this hesitating, qualified conclusion appears from the perspective of the actual, 12,000-year history of our relations with dogs. In fact, most people who’ve loved and worked with a good dog know very well from lived experience that dogs can empathize. Need I add that the fact that researchers have not yet discovered how, exactly, something works is not a good reason to doubt our experience?
I don’t know why I’m still surprised to read that the notion that dogs can empathize with their best friends (at least in “rudimentary” fashion) remains the subject of speculation. It’s the business of science to be cautious and to seek to prove what’s obvious. (You can read my take on science’s need to prove the obvious, here.)
Nor should I, or anyone else, be surprised that many dog owners, trainers, and authors of books about dogs are in actual fact skeptical that dogs can empathize with humans. After all, for the last 60 years or so, much of the dog world has been hoodwinked by a behaviorist-style “philosophy” into thinking less of dogs than we should.
Because it is such a serious obstacle to being better friends to our dogs, I dwell at some length on the roots of this well-meaning but ill-informed skepticism in my book on friendship and dogs. And since empathy is a necessary condition of any friendship, I explore the evolutionary roots of empathy in dogs and how we can best develop this powerful connection between dog and master. And not just between them.
For it turns out that the relation of master and dog is so similar to a variety of unequal relations (and, sometimes, friendships) we have with each other—such as between parent and child, boss and employee, teacher and student, master and disciple—that we can learn a lot about ourselves by examining our relations with dogs. Hardly a popular claim in some quarters, as you can imagine! Nevertheless, even the best, noblest friendships among humans have a bit of the dog’s spirited heart shining through.
Not to mention humbler virtues developed through rudimentary forms of empathy. Like yawning. Speaking of which, did my title encourage you to yawn while reading this? (Or was it the prose?)