Are Dogs Self-Aware?

Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB
Written by:
Published: November 21, 2017
Are Dogs Self-Aware?

A recently published study took a new approach in exploring the concept of self-awareness in dogs. It was a novel design based on the mirror self-recognition (MSR) test, developed by psychologist Gordon Gallup over 40 years ago.

Gallup devised the test to examine self-recognition in chimpanzees. He first allowed chimpanzees to see their image in a mirror. Then, he surreptitiously painted an odor-free red dye on their eyebrow ridge and the top section of the opposite ear. When they were exposed to a mirror again, the chimpanzees touched the marked area on their body in repeated trials.

Several other species of animals were tested throughout the years using the same method. Bonobos, orangutans, bottlenose dolphins, Asian elephants, Eurasian magpies, manta rays, ants, and orcas were able to recognize themselves in the mirror. There were mixed results noted in gorillas. Human children under 2 years of age failed to recognize themselves. 

Can Dogs Recognize Themselves?

In 2016, a research study used a “sniff-test” to determine whether dogs can recognize themselves. The study found that dogs did not spend as much time sniffing their own urine marks versus the urine marks of other dogs. This finding was an indication that dogs appeared to differentiate the smell of their own urine compared to other dogs’ urine.

Using this newfound knowledge, dog cognition expert and author Alexandra Horowitz devised a new research study using a mirror test based on smell. In several different trials, the dog participants were exposed to different combinations of canisters that contained water, the dog’s own urine, unfamiliar dog urine, the dog’s own urine that was modified, and the modifier itself.

We expected the dogs to spend less time sniffing their own urine, which the study did prove. It also showed that the dogs spent more time sniffing unfamiliar dog urine, their own modified urine, and the modifier.

In the first test, the team used diseased spleen samples as the modifier. We know that some dogs can detect cancer and other diseases in people. Since the dogs may spend more time sniffing certain parts of their owners’ body that were diseased, Horowitz was concerned that the diseased tissue may have been too novel or interesting to ignore. In the second experiment, the dogs were exposed to anise as the modifier. The dogs continued to spend more time sniffing their own modified urine compared to their normal urine or the modifier, indicating that they recognized their urine and something was different about it.

I think Horowitz presented a strong logical case to support her findings. It is difficult to detect self-awareness in species in which they may rely on other senses more strongly, such as dogs and their sense of smell. It is reasonable to test their other senses that may prove more useful to them.

Exploring Canine Behavior  

In my clinical veterinary behavior practice, many clients have reported that their dogs reacted to the sight of their reflection in the mirror or water. If the dogs were aggressive toward other dogs, these dogs barked, growled, and lunged at the mirror or reflection in the water. Dogs who were fearful of other dogs exhibited submissive body postures, such as looking away, pulling their ears back, tucking their tails, and lowering their heads. Extremely fearful and anxious dogs cowered, froze, or retreated. If these dogs recognized themselves in the mirror or reflection, I doubt that they would have exhibited such strong responses. There is also a portion of the population who may not be reactive and another portion of dogs who may exhibit a play bow and try to entice their reflection to play with them. You can see many examples of such behavior on YouTube.

This recent study adds another dimension to what we know about dogs and opens up a new avenue of exploration in dog behavior. It highlights that fact that we should not consider different species less intelligent or less self-aware based on just one test. It is truly important to keep in mind the different perceptual abilities that every species possesses and design modified versions of the mirror test to measure those specific abilities.

We know dogs are highly intelligent, otherwise we would not spend time, money, and effort to train service and working dogs. Think about the guide dogs who need to determine when to take their owners across a street. Or the herding dogs who respond to their handlers’ cues to herd the sheep into specific pens. Or the narcotics and bomb detection dogs who make our world safer. I am excited to see more mirror tests modified for other species and for any new findings on dog behavior in the upcoming years.

Dr. Wailani Sung is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of All Creates Behavior Counseling in Kirkland, Washington. She is the co-author of “From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog From Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias.”

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