Why Do Dogs Yawn? by Katelyn Schutz, CPDT
Ever wonder why your dog sometimes yawns at you after you ask her for a challenging command? Curious why your pooch yawns around other dogs at the park? Have a puppy who excessively yawns during vet and groomer visits? Interested in learning what a yawn means to your canine?
To us humans, yawning is considered impolite in public situations, implying one may be bored or exhausted. So when people see their dogs yawn, they often dismiss it, assuming their pooch is just tired. But to our dogs, yawning has a completely different social meaning, and it should never be overlooked.
A yawn is an intentional communicational signal that can indicate the dog is mildly stressed by something in their environment. It can be as simple as a dog passing by too closely, or something as complex as being afraid of a stranger.
When faced with a potentially scary situation, for example a vet visit, a dog may yawn a lot, giving an early warning that it's anxiety is escalating. Yawning with freight will be accompanied by other body language that tells you your dog is nervous and tense. Often the ears will be flattened back, and the eyes will be open wide with stressed, dilated pupils. When I worked as a veterinary assistant, I commonly saw dogs yawn during their physically exams. In addition, the dog would be trembling, refusing delicious treats, and suddenly shedding everywhere and hyper-salivating (all additional signals dogs use to express stress).
A dog may also yawn in response to social pressure, as a means to pacify and diffuse a tense or aggressive situation. These yawns are usually accompanied by other appeasing body language, such as a polite "look-away", avoiding a direct stare that may be considered an offensive challenge. Stanley Coren explained this perfectly when he said, "The yawn contains no elements of fear, dominance, or aggression. It is the exact opposite of a threat." So here, a yawn is generally meant as a calming negotiating maneuver!
In this photo I took at the wolf research park in Indiana, Seneca the wolf is yawning from the social pressure of being touched by a complete stranger. His ears are splayed back, and his eyes are in a squinty blink, showing that he is mildly uncomfortable, but still negotiating. If the humans do not heed to this intentional communicational signal, this yawn could quickly become an early warning.
Dogs will also yawn when they feel confused or frustrated. As a dog trainer, I will typically see stress yawns from dogs when their human uses a forceful correction. To me, this indicates the dog is confused by what the human wants, and the pup is becoming concerned, fearful of reprimand if it doesn't "perform" appropriately. This is why I heavily focus on POSITIVE training techniques, so dogs are never stressed when learning! I want my dogs to respect me, not fear me. Pay extra close attention for yawning during training, as it may mean your dog is getting confused. Quickly re-direct your pooch to an easier task, or something positive to re-build confidence, then continue forward.
So next time your dog yawns, don't brush it off! Search the environment for what may be stressing your canine, and help reduce his or her anxiety. I promise your pooch will thank you for it!
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