How contagious is it: Is yawning contagious from people to dogs? And if so, as Ed McMahon might have asked:
“How contagious is it?”
We ask because of this short report in Tuesday’s Science Times section. Sure enough! A new study has found that dogs are contagious yawners.
When they see their owners yawning, they start yawning too! But wouldn’t you know it? We had our usual problems with the Times’ reporting.
Anahad O’Connor started like this. Already, we had minor problems:
O’CONNOR (8/20/13): Yawning when you see someone else yawn is thought to signal empathy. About half of all people do it contagiously. Now researchers have confirmed what many pet owners have long suspected: Dogs, too, are contagious yawners.According to O’Connor, “about half of all people” engage in contagious yawning. We’ll have to admit we’re not real sure what that means.
How often do half of all people do it? O’Connor didn’t say!
That said, we awaited the major question: How many dogs are contagious yawners? And how often do they contagiously yawn?
Our favorite pet peeve was kicking in. Would O’Connor use his numbers to tell us how often these things occur?
As he continued, no luck:
O’CONNOR: In a series of experiments carried out on two dozen breeds, from poodles to pit bulls, researchers found that when a dog watched either a stranger or its owner yawn, the dog was far more likely to yawn in response to its owner. Dogs in the study also demonstrated that, for the most part, they could not be duped. They responded frequently to genuine yawns, but less so to fake yawns in which people simply stretched and then opened and closed their mouths without making noise.We’re told that a dog is “far more likely to yawn in response to its owner” (as opposed to a stranger). But O’Connor never uses his numbers! How often do dogs contagiously yawn in reaction to either group?
Go ahead—read the whole thing. O’Connor never says!
We think we’ve made our point by now. Journalists almost never attempt to quantify the results of new studies. We’re told that Group A is more likely to do something than Group B. But we’re never told how often either group behaves in the manner in question. Nor does the reporter ever quantify the degree of difference.
O’Connor never says how often dogs contagiously yawn. He never uses his numbers!
Researchers try to fool dogs: We were offended to see that researchers are asking people to engage in fake yawns, trying to fool their dogs. Isn’t it enough that people pretend to throw tennis balls, badly confusing their dogs?
A few years back, the people at Nestles came out with Frosty Paws, an imitation ice cream for dogs. The initial slogan went like this:
“It’s not ice cream. But your dog won’t know it.”
Neither will grandpa, we thoughtfully said. That doesn’t make it right!