Let's face it...you have probably held your dog or puppy up to the mirror and tried to make them look at their reflection to see just how adorable they are. Chances are though, your dog doesn't look at their reflection, won't make eye contact, and they seem completely disinterested in their adorable fluffy face.
When your dog was very small, they may have walked past a mirror and caught sight of their reflection briefly and stopped to bark, growl, snarl, and expose their teeth at their reflection, likely thinking there was another dog in the room with them. However, this probably only happened once or a handful of times, and as they grew, they no longer seemed to care.
Science thinks it is likely dogs cannot recognize themselves in a reflection and do not understand the dog in the mirror is actually them. Dogs don't appear to have the same self-awareness as humans.
Signs of a Dog Recognizing Themselves
Most of the time, puppies are the one who may see a reflection in the mirror and care enough to acknowledge the presence of the dog. But whether or not they recognize that reflection as themselves is unknown. It is more likely they think another puppy is there to either play with them or harm them. If you bring home a young puppy and they run past a mirror, they may see a reflection. If your puppy does take notice of the reflection, they may bark, growl, show their teeth, snarl, or whimper at their reflection.
Depending on your puppy's personality, some pups will be aggressive instead and some will try to play with the reflection of themselves. Instead of growling or barking, they may play bow in front of the mirror or reflection, run back and forth in front of the mirror, bark in a playful tone, or try to play chase with the reflection. Many puppies will run to the side of the mirror and look behind it, looking for the other dog because they don't understand where the reflection/image of the other dog goes when they run off.
Older dogs will react in a completely different way. Generally, an older and more mature dog just ignores their own reflection or seems as if they do not even see their reflection at all. Your older dog will not make any eye contact or look in the mirror to acknowledge the reflection.
History of Dogs Recognizes Themselves
Dogs likely do not possess the ability to recognize their own reflection as an image of themselves in the same ways humans can. Human babies are not able to recognize their own reflection until they are at least 18 to 24 months old. It may seem like a baby recognizes their reflection in the mirror as an image of themselves, but in reality, that baby really thinks they are interacting with another baby in the same room. Their reaction is a social response to another human.
We see some experiments confirmed the same type of events and response to reflections in chimps. They placed mirrors in a chimp's home and observed their reactions to their own reflections. They noticed that at first, the chimps interacted with their reflections like they were playing or interacting with another chip. However, they eventually learned that the reflection was not another chimp, but rather it was their own reflection. They would touch parts of their face and bodies while intently looking at the movements in the mirror. Other animals like dolphins, orangutans, and gorillas, possess the same level of self-awareness. However, dogs do not appear to have this same ability.
We can draw a few conclusions from these findings, although there is still much left unknown. One theory is that dogs lack complete and total self-awareness - meaning they have no ability to conceptualize an actual sense of self. This theory seems rather unlikely, however.
Another conclusion we can draw is that dogs do have some sense of self-awareness, but they simply don't care and are not concerned with their appearance or their reflection. Overall, dogs are less affected by visual events when we compare reactions to apes and humans. Instead, dogs use their sense of smell to identify self.
Perhaps testing self-awareness in dogs is different than in humans and other animals - focusing on a sense of smell to test a dog's ability for self-awareness may be the better way to gauge their ability to recognize themselves.
Science Behind Dogs Recognizing Their Reflections
A dog owner and researcher conducted an independent experiment to test his dog's ability to recognize his own scent to identify if the dog had any type of self-awareness. Over the course of five winters, the man would take his dog out and let him pee in the snow where he wanted to go. They would always go on the same route. After the dog urinated, the man would mark where his dog went to the bathroom and would also note where other urination marks from other dogs were as well. The man would let his dog go up and sniff an examine the other pee marks from different dogs. He would record his dog's reactions when he would go and sniff the other pee marks.
The man found that over all of the winters, the dog would go up to the other pee marks and sniff the marks. His dog would proceed to urinate over those marks and cover them up with his own scent. He also noted that when the dog came across his own urination in the snow, the dog would sniff he mark, but then move away and never urinate over his own spot. The man/researcher was able to conclude his dog was able to completely recognize his own scent and did not need to urinate over the mark to mark his territory because he knew the smell was his.
Although this is not the same as recognizing a reflection in the mirror as you, this does suggest that a dog is self-aware since they have the ability to recognize their own scent.
Training Dogs to Recognize Their Reflection
You cannot train your dog to recognize their reflection, but you can do a DIY dot test to see if your dog may recognize their reflection.
You can do it with the materials you have laying around the house. You will need a sticker, a piece of colored tape, or you can use a piece of colored paper with a piece of tape on the back. Attach the colored dot to your dog. The best spot to attach the dot is on their front leg, chest, or even their forehead. Just make sure you put it somewhere that is not too distracting.
Once the dot is on your dog, place your dog in front of a mirror. It is easiest to use a mirror close to ground level. You may have to hold them there for a bit or entice them to look in the direction of the mirror with a treat. When your dog is in front of the mirror, wait to see if they catch a glimpse of their reflection or even just look into the mirror.
If your dog does see the dot, they may begin to paw or scratch at the spot to touch it or get it off. If your dog does this, it would suggest that they comprehend their reflection is of themselves and they are consciously trying to get the dot off of their fur.
If your dog doesn't seem to notice the dot, they don't seem interested in the dot, or won't even look at their reflection in the mirror, this is because they do not recognize their reflection as themselves or your dog just simply does not have an interest in his/her reflection!
By a Samoyed lover Kayla Costanzo
Published: 05/25/2018, edited: 04/06/2020