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Dogs are integrous animals. We have much to learn from them.

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Alba an Aigh or Scotland the Brave.

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My hope for a ‘yes’ vote for Scottish Independence.

Alba an Aigh” is Scottish Gaelic for the Scottish patriotic song, Scotland the Brave. It was one of several songs considered an unofficial national anthem of Scotland.

Before the main purpose of today’s post, I want to republish three comments to a recent post from Patrice Ayme, Free Scotland From Thieves.

First Alex Jones, he of The Liberated Way, commented:

I hope that “yes” is the outcome in the Scottish vote. I believe Scotland is part of a trend away from globalism and centralism to a new devolved form of localism.

To which I added:

Delighted to agree with Alex and for exactly the reasons he offers. All around the globe we are seeing countless examples of the failure, to put it mildly, of BIG GOVERNMENT.

Just as much in my new home country as it was in my old one.

On Sunday evening, neighbours Janell and Larry threw a short-notice BBQ. Thirty minutes after Larry’s phone call, we walked across our fields to their place, to join three other neighbours. It was a wonderful evening and the majority of the talk was about local issues: when is it going to rain, we are all short of hay, that sort of stuff.

Towards the end, there was a general rant about the state of the world. I hesitated, aware of my ‘new boy’ status, and then quietly remarked that Jean and I were overwhelmed by the friendship and cooperation of all those living nearby. And went on to add that the contrast between how our community worked and how the American government failed to work was stark.

Everyone signalled by grunts, words and body language their agreement.

Bon chance, New Scotland.

Patrice then offered:

Dear Paul: 100% agree. The strength of the USA is that the average state is 6 million people. The state of Massachusetts has excellent results on the PISA tests, in stark distinction with most of Euramerica. That’s entirely due to localism.

In my more or less native Bay Area, governance is extremely local, and there is the secret of Silicon Valley: most deals are made with handshakes, or people who argue with each other, while knowing they will have to keep on living with each other. Silicon Valley exists, because it’s 3,000 miles from Washington and New York.

They signaled with grunts and body language because of these low PISA tests, but, right now in the Bay Area, the PISA rising movement is engaged (having a 4 year old, I am in the middle of it).

Bonne Chance Scotland, indeed. Independence (from London’s plutocracy) ought to be easy as pie for Scotland.

BTW, the “City” is technically a plutocracy: voting there depends upon the money…

So it’s already clear where I stand!

As is the stance from The Automatic Earth Please Scotland, Blow Up The EU.  Or try The London School of Economics: The ‘domino effect’ from Scotland’s referendum is increasing demands for independence in Italian regions. Then The Daily Telegraph weighs in with Britain faces storm as giant global investors awaken to break-up dangers.  All great fun!

However, the most eloquent and powerful argument read in recent days comes from George Monbiot in his essay Someone Else’s Story.  It is republished here with Mr. Monbiot’s kind permission.


Someone Else’s Story

September 2, 2014

Scots voting no to independence would be an astonishing act of self-harm

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd September 2014

Imagine that the question was posed the other way round. An independent nation is asked to decide whether to surrender its sovereignty to a larger union. It would be allowed a measure of autonomy, but key aspects of its governance would be handed to another nation. It would be used as a military base by the dominant power and yoked to an economy over which it had no control.

It would have to be bloody desperate. Only a nation in which the institutions of governance had collapsed, which had been ruined economically, which was threatened by invasion or civil war or famine might contemplate this drastic step. Most nations faced even with such catastrophes choose to retain their independence – in fact will fight to preserve it – rather than surrender to a dominant foreign power.

So what would you say about a country that sacrificed its sovereignty without collapse or compulsion? That had no obvious enemies, a basically sound economy and a broadly functional democracy, and chose to swap it for remote governance by the hereditary elite of another nation, beholden to a corrupt financial centre?(1)

What would you say about a country that exchanged an economy based on enterprise and distribution for one based on speculation and rent?(2) That chose obeisance to a government which spies on its own citizens, uses the planet as its dustbin, governs on behalf of a transnational elite which owes loyalty to no nation, cedes public services to corporations, forces terminally ill people to work(3) and can’t be trusted with a box of fireworks, let alone a fleet of nuclear submarines? You would conclude that it had lost its senses.

So what’s the difference? How is the argument altered by the fact that Scotland is considering whether to gain independence, rather than whether to lose it? It’s not. Those who would vote no – now, a new poll suggests, a rapidly diminishing majority(4) – could be suffering from system justification.

System justification is defined as the “process by which existing social arrangements are legitimised, even at the expense of personal and group interest”(5). It consists of a desire to defend the status quo, regardless of its impacts. It has been demonstrated in a large body of experimental work, which has produced the following surprising results.

System justification becomes stronger when social and economic inequality is more extreme. This is because people try to rationalise their disadvantage by seeking legitimate reasons for their position(6). In some cases disadvantaged people are more likely than the privileged to support the status quo. One study found that US citizens on low incomes were more likely than those on high incomes to believe that economic inequality is legitimate and necessary(7).

It explains why women in experimental studies pay themselves less than men, why people in low status jobs believe their work is worth less than those in high status jobs, even when they’re performing the same task, and why people accept domination by another group(8). It might help to explain why so many people in Scotland are inclined to vote no.

The fears the no campaigners have worked so hard to stoke are – by comparison to what the Scots are being asked to lose – mere shadows. As Adam Ramsay points out in his treatise Forty-Two Reasons to Support Scottish Independence, there are plenty of nations smaller than Scotland which possess their own currencies and thrive(9). Most of the world’s prosperous nations are small: there are no inherent disadvantages to downsizing(10).

Remaining in the UK carries as much risk and uncertainty as leaving. England’s housing bubble could blow at any time. We might leave the EU. Some of the most determined no campaigners would take us out: witness Ukip’s intention to stage a “pro-Union rally” in Glasgow on September 12(11). The Union in question, of course, is the UK, not Europe. This reminds us of a crashing contradiction in the politics of such groups: if our membership of the EU represents an appalling and intolerable loss of sovereignty, why is the far greater loss Scotland is being asked to accept deemed tolerable and necessary?

The Scots are told they will have no control over their own currency if they leave the UK. But they have none today. The monetary policy committee is based in London and bows to the banks. The pound’s strength, which damages the manufacturing Scotland seeks to promote, reflects the interests of the City(12).

To vote no is to choose to live under a political system that sustains one of the rich world’s highest levels of inequality and deprivation. This is a system in which all major parties are complicit, which offers no obvious exit from a model that privileges neoliberal economics over other aspirations(13). It treats the natural world, civic life, equality, public health and effective public services as dispensable luxuries, and the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor as non-negotiable.

Its lack of a codified constitution permits numberless abuses of power. It has failed to reform the House of Lords, royal prerogative, campaign finance(14) and first-past-the-post voting (another triumph for the no brigade). It is dominated by a media owned by tax exiles, who, instructing their editors from their distant chateaux, play the patriotism card at every opportunity. The concerns of swing voters in marginal constituencies outweigh those of the majority; the concerns of corporations with no lasting stake in the country outweigh everything. Broken, corrupt, dysfunctional, retentive: you want to be part of this?

Independence, as more Scots are beginning to see, offers people an opportunity to rewrite the political rules. To create a written constitution, the very process of which is engaging and transformative. To build an economy of benefit to everyone. To promote cohesion, social justice, the defence of the living planet and an end to wars of choice(15).

To deny this to yourself, to remain subject to the whims of a distant and uncaring elite, to succumb to the bleak, deferential negativity of the no campaign; to accept other people’s myths in place of your own story: that would be an astonishing act of self-repudiation and self-harm. Consider yourselves independent and work backwards from there, then ask why you would sacrifice that freedom.



1. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/31/corporation-london-city-medieval

2. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/29/rich-wealth-good-inequality-green-party

3. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/28/minister-apologise-woman-coma-find-work

4. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/sep/02/scottish-independence-yes-campaign-poll-boost

5. John T. Jost and Mahzarin R. Banaji, 1994. The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 1–27.

6. John T. Jost, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Brian A. Nosek, 2004. A Decade of System Justification Theory: Accumulated Evidence of Conscious and Unconscious Bolstering of the Status Quo . Political Psychology, Vol. 25, No. 6, 2004. http://www.psych.nyu.edu/jost/Jost,%20Banaji,%20&%20Nosek%20%282004%29%20A%20Decade%20of%20System%20Justificati.pdf

7. John T. Jost et al, 2003. Social inequality and the reduction of ideological dissonance on behalf of the system: evidence of enhanced system justification among the disadvantaged. European Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 13–36.

8. John T. Jost, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Brian A. Nosek, 2004, see above.

9. http://commonwealth-publishing.com/?p=255

10. http://www.english.plaidcymru.org/uploads/downloads/Flotilla_Effect_-_Adam_Price_and_Ben_Levinger.pdf

11. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-29003017

12. See also, on these questions, the Common Weal report by the Jimmy Reid Foundation: http://reidfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/The-Common-Weal.pdf

13. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/05/neoliberalism-mental-health-rich-poverty-economy

14. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jul/01/-sp-tory-summer-party-drew-super-rich-supporters-with-total-wealth-of-11bn

15. There’s more on all this at http://commonwealth-publishing.com/?p=255


Since preparing this post, I see that George Monbiot has published a second essay on the subject of the Scottish referendum. I’m pondering republishing that second essay next Monday.

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Written by Paul Handover

September 11, 2014 at 00:00

Harvest Moon 2014

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Sorry, couldn’t resist this.

The following photograph was taken around 9pm (PDT) on the evening of the 8th September; i.e. Monday evening.

The image has been tweaked to display the picture more clearly but, nonetheless, shows the most beautiful Harvest Moon.  The camera was pointing to the East; I was standing on the deck at the back of our house.


Anything to do with dogs?

You bet! There’s this ….



and this:

Uploaded on Nov 9, 2010
During Bob and Jan Shaw’s Annual fall training session outside of Newberry, MI in the beautiful Upper Peninsula, I had the opportunity to record over 100 huskies howling at a full moon.

We all shine on…like the moon and the stars and the sun…we all shine on…come on and on and on…John Lennon.

Written by Paul Handover

September 10, 2014 at 00:00

Wisdom, nature and … a Koala!

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As topic changes go, this takes some beating!

I am referring, of course, to the contrast to yesterday’s post title: Wisdom, nature and philosophy.

The drought that this part of Oregon has been experiencing has had one obvious effect: the availability of good hay is rapidly diminishing.  With four horses to feed and our own pasture just about eaten out, we need a few more tons before the rains arrive around the end of the year: fingers crossed!  We have been frantically trying to find some.

What, you may ask, has this to do with Learning from Dogs?  Only that by the time I sat down yesterday to write today’s post, I was squeezed in terms of writing a longer post, and had less than an hour to spare before driving up to Glendale to look at some second-cutting hay for sale.

Then a recent email from a long-term friend in Australia saved the day.  It was from Amanda Smith and is reproduced just as she sent it to me; that in turn had been sent to Amanda from a friend of hers.  It’s a delightful tale.


Koalas Like the Beach As Well.

This occurred on a walk along Flinders Beach on North Stradbroke Island in Queensland a couple of days ago.

The Koalas seem fairly tame over here. We passed two sitting in she-oak trees each about two metres off the ground. They were not spooked at all by the attention we gave them.

Then, about half way along the beach, we saw this young fellow actually running up and down the beach and playing around the kids like a puppy.







After the koala allowed itself to be stroked and petted by us humans, it decided to go for a swim!





Then the little chap went about twenty metres into the sea, swam around for a good half-hour fascinating onlookers, before coming back to the beach.





The little chap then took a while to recover from his swim.

We have never heard of or seen this behaviour before: a koala who likes to “play” with humans, and swim in the ocean.

Unbelievable stuff, something we will always remember.

(Credit Allan Duncan)


Makes finding hay for horses seem mundane! :-)

Written by Paul Handover

September 9, 2014 at 00:00

Wisdom, nature and philosophy.

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The hidden gifts of nature.

I have been a follower of Alex Jones’ blog The Liberated Way for many months; possibly much longer. Frequently, I republish one of Alex’s posts here.

Nearly six months ago, I read a lovely essay of his and made a mental note to republish that in the next few days.  Then the world overtook me and now April 30th, when Alex published this piece, has become September 8th!

Yet it hasn’t lost a heartbeat of meaning.

Read on and you will agree.


The hidden gifts of nature.

The western education system ignores nature.

Nature is all around us with its gifts of philosophy, wisdom and creativity; qualities the West devalues at its loss.

Nature is all around us with its gifts of philosophy, wisdom and creativity; qualities the West devalues at its loss.

The holidays are over in the UK, the students return to school, some to their exams. I reflect upon the sad treatment of creativity, wisdom, nature and natural philosophy in education, and in Western society as a whole, treated as worthless and unworthy of consideration.

On most days I walk past the former home of William Gilbert, some consider the father of electricity and magnetism. Born to a wealthy merchant family in my town of Colchester, Gilbert invested his personal wealth in an extensive study of magnetism with view to assisting the explorers of the Elizabethan age when Britain was building an empire in a period of great prosperity and confidence. Gilbert invented the term electricity. Gilbert wrote De Magnete, considered possibly the first work using the scientific method. In addition to being a scientist, a doctor to Elizabeth I, Gilbert was also a natural philosopher who used the empirical method of observation, demonstration and experience of nature to form his theories.

Each day I watch and interact with nature, like Gilbert I am a natural philosopher, and this forms the basis of my business ideas, my scientific understanding and my personal philosophies. Rather than a worthless study nature opens the door to the philosophy of the understanding of self, the world, and the relationship of self to the world. Wisdom is born of action and experience, the interactions with nature gives birth to wisdom. Nature encourages people to do new things in new ways, so rerouting electric signals in the brain causing new connections to form of creativity. The philosophy emerges from nature by causing the mind to question, observe and experiment, the basis of science and success in any discipline.


Colchester, in the English county of Essex, goes way back to Roman times when the town was called Camulodunon (which was latinised as Camulodunum). That name is believed to date back to the Celtic fortress of “Camulodunon”, meaning Stronghold of Camulos. It served as the first capital of Roman Britain making a claim to be the oldest town in Britain.

It is where Alex Jones lives, the author of The Liberated Way, and where during the 1980’s I ran a business under the name of Dataview Ltd.  In fact, the business was located in a very old, listed building known as The Portreeve’s House.  It was at the bottom of town near Hythe Quay on the River Colne and the name “Portreeve” is old English for harbour master, i.e. it was originally the harbour master’s house.

The timber-framed building at 1–2 East Bay, Colchester, known as the Portreeve’s House (TM00552525), is situated on the main eastern approach to the town centre. The building is on the junction of Brook Street and East Bay (FIG. 1) and is 375 metres east of the former position of East Gate and 150 metres west of East Bridge, the river Colne and East Mill.

The timber-framed building at 1–2 East Bay, Colchester, known as the Portreeve’s House is situated on the main eastern approach to the town centre. The building is on the junction of Brook Street and East Bay and is 375 metres east of the former position of East Gate and 150 metres west of East Bridge, the river Colne and East Mill.  The building is believed to date back to the 16th Century.

All seems a long way from Southern Oregon!

Thank you, Ben!

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A thank you to all those that work so hard to stop fires from getting out of control.

I am drafting this post at a little after noon on the 4th., i.e. early afternoon yesterday.

It is yet another dry, hot day in a long run of hot, dry days. Our local online weather service, GrantsPassWeather.com, informs me that the temperature this afternoon (i.e. yesterday) is forecast to be a high of 93 deg F. or 34 deg C.  We last had monthly rain totals of more than an inch back in March.  At the top of the home page of Grants Pass Weather is a bold red banner proclaiming a Red Flag Warning for three counties: Jackson, Josephine and Eastern Curry.  We live in Josephine County and clicking that banner reveals:



* AFFECTED AREA: FIRE WEATHER ZONES 80…281…617…619…620…621…622 AND 623.







Little after 7am a few weeks ago - looking out to North-East.

Little after 7am a few weeks ago – looking out to North-East. Picture taken from the rear deck of our house near Merlin, Oregon.

Does this focus the mind?  You bet! The trees in the foreground of the above photograph are within our property. Our house is surrounded by tall oaks, pines and fir trees.

Now stay with me through what, at first, may seem like a disconnected change of topic.

Long, long time ago Jean met Ira Weisenfeld, a young vet making his way in the world.  Jean’s passion for rescuing feral street dogs meant that she was a more active user of a vet’s services than the average pet owner.  Jean and Ira became very good friends.

Earlier on this year, we had the pleasure of the company of Ira’s daughter, Amber, who came to see us with the man in her life, Ben Elkind.

Fast forward to the 1st September and Amber sent us the following email:

Hello Paul and Jean!

Hope you guys are doing well. Here is a BBC story about smokejumpers in Redding, CA where Ben works, he is interviewed too. Thought you might like it! Hope you had a wonderful summer. I just finished the boundary water canoe trip with Dad, it was very good.
Take care,

That BBC story explains:

Forest fires kept at bay in US by elite ‘smokejumpers’

26 August 2014 Last updated at 00:48 BST

The drought that has gripped much of the American West shows no sign of abating – yet despite the tinder-box conditions, so far less land in the region has been lost to wildfires in 2014 than in recent years.

That is partly due to an aggressive strategy to stop smaller forest fires before they become too big to handle.

At the frontline of this effort are the smokejumpers, airborne firefighters who parachute into the wilderness to get the blazes under control.

It’s a dangerous job for an elite group of highly-trained men and women. The BBC spoke to three smokejumpers – Ben Elkind, Gretchen Stumhofer and Luis Gomez – at their base in Redding, California.

Produced by the BBC’s Jack Garland.

Additional footage courtesy of Ben Elkind and Tye Erwin

Here is that film report.

More yawning!

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This time from dogs

Two days ago, I wrote a post Empathy and bonding that revolved around some recent science about yawning in wolves.  The crux of the post was an essay in the Smithsonian by Helen Thompson. The article was called Yawning Spreads like a Plague in Wolves.

In my research for that post, I came across another Smithsonian article regarding the contagious nature of yawning in dogs.  I wanted to republish that here as a follow-up to the yawning in wolves piece.


Dogs Yawn Contagiously Too

Like humans, dogs are prone to yawning when they see someone else do it—and a new study shows that they yawn most frequently in response to their owner.

By Joseph Stromberg
August 7, 2013


New research shows that, like humans, dogs are prone to yawning when they see someone else do it—and they yawn most frequently in response to their owner. Image via Flickr user The Eggplant

Animals: they’re just like us. They have unique, individual personalities. They remember their friends after years apart.

And now, in one of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries of the decade—and perhaps even the century—researchers from the University of Tokyo have discovered that, like humans, dogs yawn contagiously.

Okay, we kid. But in all seriousness, the finding does shed a bit of light on that most mysterious of behaviors, the yawn. Despite years of research, scientists still don’t understand why we do it in the first place. Most believe we yawn to help cool down when our brains are overheated. The fact that yawning is contagious in 60 to 70 percent of people, many argue, is a function of empathy, as people who score higher on empathy tests are more likely to experience contagious yawning.

In the new study, published today [Ed. August 7th, 2013] in PLOS ONE, the researchers found that more than half the dogs they tested yawned contagiously—and, most interesting, they were more likely to yawn after watching their owner yawn than seeing it done by an unfamiliar human. If empathy truly is at the heart of contagious yawning, these findings could suggest that canines, too, are capable of true empathy.

This isn’t the first study to show that dogs yawn contagiously, but it is the first to get the dogs’ owners involved. The researchers visited the homes of 25 dogs from different breeds (ranging from golden retrievers to labs to chihuahuas) and had their owners sit in front of them, call their name, and then yawn. For a control, they also had their owners simply open and close their mouths, without a yawn’s characteristic jaw-stretching, deep inhalation or long sigh. As a comparison, they also had people that the dogs had never met before perform both actions. (Incidentally, the paper is vague on how they got the owners and strangers to yawn—although, as you might have discovered since starting this post, simply reading about yawning might have done the trick.)

In total, the 25 dogs yawned 22 times after seeing people yawn, and just 5 times after seeing people open and close their mouths. They were nearly three times more likely to yawn contagiously after seeing their owner yawn as compared to seeing a random person do it. This last finding, they say, provides further evidence for the role of empathy in yawning, as dogs are presumably more likely to empathize with their owners than another person.

Why would empathy be the explanation for why yawns are contagious? As social animals, humans often inadvertently copy the emotions and behaviors of those around them, whether it’s a smile or a frown.

Yawns, presumably, are no exception. And if the underlying function of yawning is to dissipate heat and cool the brain down, mimicking the yawns of others would make a lot of sense. “If I see a yawn, that might automatically cue an instinctual behavior that if so-and-so’s brain is heating up, that means I’m in close enough vicinity, I may need to regulate my neural processes too,” Steven Platek, a psychology professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, told my colleague Marina Koren in her recent post on the science of yawning.

Other work has found that chimpanzees yawn contagiously. That research, along with the new finding, suggests that to some extent, chimps and dogs operate based on the same sorts of social cues as we do.


What more can I add!

Especially with a yawn coming up! (A younger version of me, you do understand!)


Written by Paul Handover

September 4, 2014 at 00:00

Empathy and bonding.

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Who would have thought that yawning revealed so much more than one’s tonsils!

Alex Jones, he of the blog The Liberated Way, recently posted You need room to grow. On reading the post a section stood out for me:

The human eye needs the stimulation of sunlight and the outdoors to develop properly. The BBC [Ed: Massive rise in Asian eye damage] reports that a recent study of students in South Asian cities found 90% of the samples were short-sighted, a condition called myopia that needs glasses. Modern South Asian students spend a large part of their lives indoors studying or involved with electronic technology such as the internet. Young children in the UK are rapidly getting myopia as young as three because of being indoors and on computers for long periods of time according to the Daily Mail.

That got me thinking about both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles of social bonding.  In defence of our digital world, there is no question that social media programs (apps?) such as Facebook, Linked-In and Twitter are incredible means of communicating with people that one doesn’t know directly.  Even the funny old world of blogging delivers that. I would have stopped writing for Learning from Dogs years ago if it weren’t for the many ‘friends’ that have been made across the ‘blogosphere’!

But (and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you!), social intimacy, as in being able to rub shoulders with people, is the vital core to how we ‘wear’ the world around us.

That was brought home to me by a recent article on the Smithsonian website, an article that I am taking the liberty of republishing in this place. The article is about the contagious nature of yawning; not just for us humans but for wolves.

Note: there were many links to other content in the article making it almost impossible to replicate. So please go to the original to follow up those links.


Yawning Spreads Like a Plague in Wolves

Evidence of contagious yawning in chimps, dogs and now wolves suggests that the behavior is linked to a mammalian sense of empathy

By Helen Thompson smithsonian.com
August 27, 2014

Chimps do it, birds do it, even you and I do it. Once you see someone yawn, you are compelled to do the same. Now it seems that wolves can be added to the list of animals known to spread yawns like a contagion.

Among humans, even thinking about yawning can trigger the reflex, leading some to suspect that catching a yawn is linked to our ability to empathize with other humans. For instance, contagious yawning activates the same parts of the brain that govern empathy and social know-how. And some studies have shown that humans with more fine-tuned social skills are more likely to catch a yawn.

Similarly, chimpanzees, baboons and bonobos often yawn when they see other members of their species yawning. Chimps (Pan troglodytes) can catch yawns from humans, even virtual ones, as seen in the video below. At least in primates, contagious yawning seems to require an emotional connection and may function as a demonstration of empathy. Beyond primates, though, the trends are less clear-cut. One study found evidence of contagious yawning in birds but didn’t connect it to empathy. A 2008 study showed that dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) could catch yawns from humans, and another showed that dogs were more likely to catch the yawn of a familiar human rather than a stranger. But efforts to see if dogs catch yawns from each other and to replicate the results with humans have so far had no luck.

Now a study published today in PLOS ONE reports the first evidence of contagious yawning in wolves (Canis lupus lupus). “We showed that the wolves were able to yawn contagiously, and this is affected by the emotional bond between individuals, which suggests that familiarity and social bonds matter in these animals the same way as it does in humans,” says study co-author Teresa Romero, who studies animal behavior at the University of Tokyo.

The prevalence of contagious yawning in primates and other mammals could give us some clues to the evolution of empathy—that’s in part what makes the phenomenon so interesting and so controversial. If dogs can catch yawns from humans, did they pick up the behavior because of domestication, or does the trait run deeper into evolutionary history?

The Tokyo team took a stab at those questions by looking at contagious yawning in dog’s closest relatives, wolves. For 254 hours over five months, they observed twelve wolves (six males and six females) at the Tama Zoological Park in Tokyo. They kept tabs on the who, what, when, where, how many and how long of every yawn, then separated out data for yawns in relaxed settings, to minimize the influence of external stimuli.

Next, they statistically analyzed the data and looked for trends. They found that wolves were much more likely to yawn in response to another’s yawn rather than not, which suggests that contagious yawning is at play.


In image A, an individual (right) yawned during a resting period, and a few seconds later, image B shows the subject (on the left) yawned contagiously. (Teresa Romero)

Wolves were more likely to catch the yawn if they were friends with the yawner. Females were also quicker on the yawn uptake when watching the yawns of those around them—possibly because they’re more attuned to social cues, but with such a small group it’s hard to say for sure.

The results seem to add to the case for empathy as the primary function of contagious yawning. “We have the strongest responses to our family, then our friends, then acquaintances, and so on and so forth,” says Matt Campbell, a psychologist at California State University, Channel Islands. “That contagious yawning works along the same social dimension supports the idea that the mechanism that allows us to copy the smiles, frowns and fear of others also allows us to copy their yawns.”

Empathy likely originated as an ancestral trait in mammals, and that’s why it emerges in such disparate species as wolves and humans. “More and more research is supporting this idea that basic forms of empathy are very ancient, and they are present in a wide number of species, at least in mammals,” says Romero. Elephants, for example, comfort their upset friends. Even rats exhibit a basic helping behavior toward other friendly rodents.

Why does contagious yawning between members of the same species show up in wolves and not dogs? The difference probably comes down to study design, not biology. “Most likely, dogs also catch yawns from [other dogs], as now shown for wolves,” says Elaine Madsen, a cognitive zoologist at Lund University in Sweden. Further studies might reveal the extent to which human interaction has affected present-day dogs’ susceptibility to catching another species’ yawns, she says.

It’s impossible to say what true function contagious yawning serves in wolves, but the researchers argue that such behavior could cultivate social bonds. “If an individual is not in sync with its group, it risks being left behind. That is not good,” says Campbell. Just watching wolves yawn can’t definitively prove that empathy drove the behavior, but it’s certainly compelling evidence that wolves might feel for their fellow lupines.


Fascinating. As too is an article also on the Smithsonian website about dogs yawning.  Going to republish that in a few days.

However, this post was prompted by the reminder that there is no substitute for social bonding with others who we meet physically. That is why the Smithsonian essay seemed such an important reminder.  As was written (my emphasis):

Among humans, even thinking about yawning can trigger the reflex, leading some to suspect that catching a yawn is linked to our ability to empathize with other humans. For instance, contagious yawning activates the same parts of the brain that govern empathy and social know-how. And some studies have shown that humans with more fine-tuned social skills are more likely to catch a yawn.

Time for an afternoon nap!

Time for an afternoon nap!


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