"Unexpectedly, results showed an interesting interplay between contagion and social effects," Karine Silva, of the Universidade do Porto in Portugal, and colleagues write in their study detailed in the July 2012 issue of the journal Animal Cognition. "Not only were dogs found to catch human yawns, but they were also found to yawn more at familiar than unfamiliar yawns."
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They also catch their owner's yawns easier than those from others, supporting the theory that contagious yawns are empathy-based and emotional in nature, the researchers say.
Previous research has linked contagious yawning to empathy (the ability to understand and interpret another's emotions) in humans. They've shown that people who perform better on empathy-related tasks also contagiously yawned more.
A link has also been seen in baboons — they catch yawns best from baboons they are closest with. Scientists have found similar phenomena in yawning chimpanzees. Research published in the journal Biology Letters in 2008 indicated that most dogs catch yawns from their owners as well, though other studies questioned this finding.
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