We humans usually yawn when we’re tired or bored; or simply see someone else yawning! Although a dog's yawn is similar to ours; a wide open jaw and followed by a loud breath; they actually yawn for entirely different reasons. When your pooch yawns; he is communicating in dog talk and it’s important to pay close attention to pick up on how he is feeling.
A calming signal
A common reason your pooch will yawn, especially when he meets a hyped up or aggressive dog, is to convey peace. He's letting his new friend know to Keep Calm And Carry On.
Yawning is one of the physical signs dogs make known as a ‘calming signal’ or ‘appeasement gesture’. Other calming or appeasement behaviours include licking, scratching and averting their gaze when they meet another pooch that is either nervous or showing dominant behaviour. It’s your pooch’s way of saying ‘I’m ok, chill out, I’m not out to fight with anyone!’ and show indifference to the situation.
Anxiety or stress
On the other hand, yawning can also indicate anxiety or stress in a dog.
Your dog is very sensitive to human emotional states like sadness and anger; these human emotions can trigger anxiety in a dog. You may find your pooch will yawn if he is in close proximity to a situation with heightened tension; for example and argument. He may also yawn if he is the one being reprimanded! When he is feeling stress in a situation, he’s likely to get his yawn on too. Pay close attention to your dog’s physical reaction when being approached by a stranger, child or being hugged. If he is yawning, it may be his way of communication that he is feeling stressed out and needs some help to be rescued from the situation. He’s relying on you to pick up on his signals so the situation doesn’t spiral into something ugly, like biting or becoming aggressive.
Confusion during training
Considering dogs and humans are entirely different species, we do a pretty decent job, most of the time, communicating with each other! Yawning, however, can indicate your pooch doesn’t quite understand what you’re asking him to do. It’s common for dogs to yawn when they are being trained or given a command they are unfamiliar with; your pooch isn’t disinterested, quite the opposite, he knows you want him to do something but he doesn’t quite get it. If you’ve bombarded your dog with a series of new commands this will cause a mixture of stress and confusion and it’s likely he’ll begin to yawn to say ‘Woah, hold on, I don’t understand!’. This is when it’s time to go easy and give him a break. Just like us, a dog can tire out mentally as well as physically so it’s important to be careful to avoid information overload during training.
If you’re keen to know more about deciphering the signals your pooch sends you; we recommend reading On Talking Terms With Dogs by Turid Rugass, a Norwegian dog trainer and behaviourist. This book provides incredible insight into the ways dogs communicate with more than 30 signals including yawning, lip-licking, sneezing and scratching.