You may think your pup is sleepy but like us signals get mixed.
When someone yawns it signals that the person is tired or bored and when we are in public and are supposed to be paying attention the inevitable yawn can be rather embarrassing and send some mixed signals. Well, it is an autonomic response which occurs in humans and our canine companions!
Our dogs understand a lot of the words we throw at them, but our dogs rely on using their nonverbal body language to communicate with us and other animals. For a dog, yawning can mean many different things based on the environmental interaction or situation.
Here is where we are alike:
Oxygen - Just like us, a dog may yawn when she's sleepy, bored, or trying to move into a more wakeful state. This is because yawning increases oxygen levels in the brain and releases excess carbon dioxide, resulting in an instant energy boost and increased alertness.
Mimicking - Dogs are amazing... Studies show that dogs sometimes respond to a human's yawn with a yawn of their own! Dogs are one of the only species that have the capacity for contagious yawning and mimicking states of consciousness... (Check out the research here) There is also some really great research on dog's and their capacity for Empathy. Check that out here.
Here is where most of us think the yawn ends. A dogs yawn actually goes way beyond being tired, bored, and mimicking. Here are situations that provide a window into ways to recognize what a yawn can convey based on their emotional state of being:
Anxious, ill, or struggling with pain -
You may see a dog that is sleepy but yawning calms the nervous system. It is an autonomic response when your dog may actually be feeling anxious, ill or
when they are struggling with pain.
Chill out Dude -
A yawn can serve as a "white flag" when they perceive an interaction as conflicting. The yawn is their way of communicating their willingness to disengage. Other dogs recognize the yawn as a polite request for increased space and an amicable end to the interaction. It's a sign of pacification rather than one of submission and a way for dogs to tell other dog's they are not a threat.
Dealing with Inner Conflict -
Yawning may indicate that your dog is experiencing an internal dilemma and faced with incompatible options for how to respond. For instance, a dog may yawn after being told to "leave it" when faced with a sandwich on the coffee table. The yawn may allude to her internal struggle to decide between two opposing options: moving away from the food in response to her owner's request or diving nose-first into a sandwich exuding an intoxicating smell. If the owner uses an intimidating voice to tell the dog to back away, the yawn may indicate both internal conflict and emotional distress.
Dealing with External Conflict -
When subtle stress signals like yawning are missed, the dog may resort to louder communication signals—like a growl or snap—to make herself heard. If a dog yawns after being hugged by a stranger, for instance, and her signs of stress (such as turning her head away, showing the whites of her eyes, or licking her lips) are overlooked, the dog may escalate from her polite request for space to a louder demand that's finally heard and acted upon.
So, the next time your pet yawns, take a look at its context to determine if your pup is modeling behavior, providing communication to another dog, or struggling with a situation.