Can Dogs Identify Themselves in a Mirror?

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Introduction

One of Aesop's Fables is a story of a dog and his reflection As the story goes, while holding a piece of meat in his mouth, the dog sees his reflection in a pool of water. The dog does not recognize that he is gazing at himself. The dog thinks the dog he is gazing upon has the larger piece of meat. The dog opens his mouth to bark at the dog and drops his own meat in the water. 

While the moral of the story is a warning of greed, it also demonstrates a centuries old understanding that dogs do not identify themselves when they see their reflection in a mirror. For some time, we have puzzled to understand how it is that recognition of self and other develops in humans, dogs and other species.

That dog in the mirror is not at all interesting

Dogs may have a range of reactions to that doggie they see in the mirror. Some dogs will give the mirror a fleeting glance and walk away. Other dogs, who are more aggressive, may bark, growl or lunge at their reflection. Fearful dogs may show submissive behaviors such as pulling their ears back, backing away, or tucking their tails and lowering their heads. These signs indicate that while the dogs are seeing a dog in the mirror, they are likely not recognizing themselves in the image.

Signs of interest and attraction are usually detected in dogs by what they pay attention to in a situation. Observers watch what the dog will go to and turn their attention towards. When dogs are placed in front of a mirror, they may react as if it were another dog but they just do not spend time looking at themselves.

Since your dog is likely not to recognize himself in the mirror, you may find that your dog is engaged in a variety of other reactions when encountering a mirror. Dogs will typically look in the mirror and then turn away and do something else. Some owners have found that once the dog has had this visual encounter with himself in the mirror, he will not even give himself a look when presented with the mirror on other occasions. If your dog is aggressive or fearful with other dogs, you may see signs of your dog reacting to the image differently.

Body Language

If your dog were recognizing himself as the doggie in the mirror, these are the likely signs that your dog is self-aware and is using his vision to identify himself:
  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Wag tail

Other Signs

Some more reactions to look out for include:
  • Briefly Looking at the Reflection
  • Walking Away
  • Try to Sniff
  • Barking for a Short Time Only
  • Backing Away from the Mirror

The History of Dogs and Their Reflections

Consciousness is the term used to describe your awareness of thoughts, feelings, memories, desires and the environment. We go through our days with shifting streams of thoughts. For example, at this very moment, you may be aware of your dog sleeping on his bed, a song may have started to play and a notification may have popped up on your phone. 

Humans have tried to understand consciousness for centuries. The earliest ponderings on consciousness were by Renee Descartes, whose theories are represented by the quote, "I think, therefore I am". As the field of psychology emerged in the twentieth century, consciousness was studied by having persons report on their stream of thoughts. With the developments of technology and neuroscience, consciousness is studied by examining areas of the brain that are activated during activities or reports of thoughts. One thing these studies have revealed is that memories play an important role in consciousness. 

Have you ever watched your dog play with abandon and admired your dog's freedom to just be a dog? Have you observed how he uses his super-sniffer to explore his world? Did your dog ever wake you up by whimpering and wiggling his feet when he is having a dream? Your dog is able to learn commands, signals and how to navigate his habitat. While we, as humans, go through our days and evenings with an array of ponderings and thoughts, we really don't know if our dogs are pondering their existence or following their dispositions, training and instincts to explore, work, rest and play. 

The Science of Dogs Recognising Their Reflections

Scientists have been using the mirror test to study the development of self-consciousness in humans and the potential existence of self-consciousness across animals. 

Puppies will seem to be interested in playing with a puppy they see in the mirror. When human babies are under the age of about 18 to 24 months, they will react to their image in the mirror as if they are looking at another baby. About the age that the development of language occurs, the human baby shows reactions that indicate she is recognizing herself in the mirror. 

How would the scientists know what the baby is thinking? They put a red dot on the baby's forehead and watch their reactions in the mirror. If the baby thinks she is looking at someone else, she will ignore the spots. If the baby is recognizing herself in the mirror, she will react and explore the red spot. Other studies that place animals in front of mirrors have established that chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and magpies seem to identify themselves in mirrors.

Our dogs are smart. Why don't they recognize themselves in the mirror? One theory is that they are using their vision to look in the mirror. Dogs recognize themselves and other dogs with their sense of smell. This was demonstrated in a study with a dog named Jethro and the "yellow snow test". 

Jethro's owner would take him for winter walks down paths that were traveled by other dogs. Whenever Jethro would stop to sniff some yellow snow, his owner would record the location, gather some of it and drop it on another spot on the trail. He observed Jethro's reactions when he would encounter the yellow snow for the second time and he compared those reactions to how Jethro would react to the sniff of his own urine in the snow. Jethro was less interested in his own urine and in familiar urine smells. 

These findings were taken as evidence that Jethro recognizes himself through the sense of smell. Good dog walkers and frequenters for dog parks may make observations that validate how dogs will use their sense of smell to check out marked spots and by sniffing hind-quarters to tell who's in his environment. Scientists have yet to come up with a better test to establish if dogs have the self-consciousness to recognize themselves in a mirror if they are so evolved that they are simply not phased by their looks.

Training Your Dog to Recognize

Your dog is a natural beauty and does not really need to be trained to primp in front of the mirror. Since sniffing is such an important method for your dog to recognize his territory and the others in his area, it may be worthwhile to take some time to observe and learn good sniffing behaviors. 

Humans shake hands. Dogs sniff butts. This is their way of greeting one another and establishing if this is going to be a friendly encounter. It is good manners to let them sniff each other's hind-quarters. If your dog lies on his back and acts submissive, do not interfere with the behavior. Just let them sniff. They will move on once they are acquainted. The sniffing actually helps them to avoid fights and it is how they recognize one another in the future.

When it comes to crotch sniffing of humans, while this might seem to be a perfectly natural act for the dog, people do not like a dog nose in the crotch. As the owner, train your dog to exhibit the behavior you want him to display when he is greeting a person. Teach your dog the sit-stay command. Once your dog understands the command, you can teach him the situations in which to sit-stay. Ask a friend or neighbor to come to your door. Practice the sit-stay command with the dog as the friend enters the house. Reward your dog for following the command. 

We often have to train ourselves to know what to do with our dogs. Another strategy you can try is to help the person who is getting crotch-sniffed to know what to do or assist them with this most uncomfortable situation. Do not react when the dog sniffs. Just let him sniff for a moment and he will most likely move away on his own. The other strategy is to gently redirect the dog. Gently take the dog's collar and move the dog away. 

How to React to Your Dog Recognising

  • If you see your dog reacting to his image in the mirror, enjoy his reactions.
  • If you find your dog is aggressive toward dog images, take note that your dog might be aggressive with real dogs and take precautions to use a leash in public and get training.
  • If you find your dog is fearful around his image in the mirror, consider if his fearfulness is a characteristic that you might need to learn more about to protect him and family members from fear biting.
  • He might not recognize himself, but you can recognize his dispositions and appreciate his loyalty as your best friend!

Safety Tips for Recognising Dogs

  • Understand your dog's territory and the signals he uses to mark his turf.
  • Leash your dog in public and be aware of who is in the dog park if you go off leash.
  • Allow your dog to sniff.
  • Do not let your dog eat excrement.
  • Be gentle when your dog is getting sniffed to avoid a dog fight or bite.

We Want to Hear If Your Pooch Recognises Himself in the Mirror!