You may have noticed that most dogs do not pay attention to their reflection in the mirror or that some dogs may at first show some interest but over time they start ignoring the image. So, why is it that dogs don’t look at themselves in the mirror? As humans when we see ourselves in the mirror we know it is our reflection. However, human babies don’t understand the concept of ‘self’ at first when they see their image in the mirror, this is because ‘self’ is a learned concept. This is why babies and toddlers may at first be fascinated with the mirror yet later grow bored with it as they learn to recognize themselves. It is up for debate whether or not a dog understands the concept of ‘self.’
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The Root of the Behavior
Many people believe that a dog's behavior towards a mirror and how they oftentimes seem to ignore it is due to the animal having a lack of self-conscious or in other words the dog cannot recognize himself in the mirror. This does not fully explain why some dogs bark at their reflection unless they are only seeing another dog in the mirror and not themselves.
Biologist, Marc Bekoff, thinks a little differently. He believes dogs do have a sense of self, only in a very different way than visually. A dog's greatest sense is their nose. Dogs can recognize familiar people and other familiar animals by their scent. Bekoff believes that asking a dog to recognize himself by reflection is not an ideal test since their strongest sense is smell. It is a matter of doing a different test on a dog to see if the dog recognizes its own scent.
Marc Bekoff performed a research test called the ‘Yellow Snow Test’. The subject of this test was his own dog. What he concluded from that test was that a dog could recognize his own pee marks, which means the dog has a concept of self.
Another theory to this behavior is how when puppies are little they bark and play with the image in the mirror yet, over time they realize it is their own image and is bored of it. This concept is based on human behavior. Much like how most humans do not make much of a fuss over their image after seeing it again and again, all the while, babies and toddlers get a kick out of their reflection. So, the root of this behavior comes down to whether dogs have a concept of self. Or, do they just not really see the image in the mirror after all? The jury is somewhat divided on this one.
Encouraging the Behavior
There really is no right or wrong behavior when it comes to your dog and their reflection in the mirror. If your dog does not look at his reflection in the mirror, do not fret. It is okay. Quite normal, actually. And, if your dog does play and bark at the mirror, that is okay too. This just means your dog is exploring the mirror. The first few times a dog sees himself in the mirror he may not get a good concept of it. Over time though, your dog may soon ignore the mirror, as he figures out it is just a reflection or, in his mind, figured out it is not real.
If you would like your dog to have a sense of himself. Take him for routine walks along the same path daily. Most likely he will sniff areas where he has gone potty before and if the scent remains he will leave it alone. Whereas if he smells another dog or animal he will mark that area. This shows that your dog has a sense of self and a sense of where he has been. Dogs love marking out their terrority and that is perfectly normal behavior that should not worry you.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Dogs may or may not truly see themselves in a mirror. If they do see themselves, he may have grown bored of the image. If they do not see it, some believe it is the lack of understanding about ‘self’ and reflections. Either way this is perfectly normal behavior that most dogs exhibit.