5 min read


Can Dogs Recognize Themselves by Smell?



5 min read


Can Dogs Recognize Themselves by Smell?


You are probably familiar with the fact it doesn't seem like your dog recognizes themselves in the mirror. In fact, your dog likely doesn't even make eye contact or show any interest at all in their reflection. 

Although it is not completely black and white, the majority of the scientific community believes dogs don't possess self-awareness, which they would need in order to understand that their reflection in the mirror is of themselves. But just because your dog does not understand what their reflection is, doesn't mean they don't have self-awareness in some other form. 

Recently, researchers have conducted experiments that confirm dogs can recognize their own personal smell, but they don't recognize themselves by sight. This makes sense since dogs' senses of smell are incredibly powerful. 


Signs of a Dog Recognizing Their Smell

Your dog is able to see their world through their nose. They have an impeccable sense of smell and can "see" more through their nose than they can with their eyes. Although eyesight is important for your dog and it helps them navigate through the world, their sense of smell guides them even further. You likely see their sense of smell navigating them through their everyday life with you. 

For example, when you take your dog to go potty, do they urinate and defecate in the same spots? Do they like to go back to the last spot they urinated and sniff it intently, as if they are making sure their territory is still marked? The answer is probably yes, and they are doing this for a reason! 

Your dog is making sure the special scent they left is still marking their territory to claim that spot as their own. Your dog will either sniff the spot intently and walk away, which means another dog has not urinated over the spot, or your dog will urinate over it to claim their rightful territory back. It may seem silly to us, but this is the way your dog communicates with the world. 

If your dog's urine is mixed with the scent of another dog's urine, they will also sniff it much longer than if it was just their own urine scent. Therefore, if your dog spends a long time sniffing a spot where they go to the bathroom, it is because another dog went potty there as well and they are trying to figure out the other smell and what it could mean. 

Body Language

These are some signs you may notice if your dog recognizes their smell:

  • Alert
  • Sniffing
  • Tail Up
  • Licking

Other Signs

Here are some other signs you may notice if your dog recognizes their own scent:

  • Urinating In The Same Spots
  • Not Urinating Over A Familiar Scent
  • Sniffing One Spot For A Shorter Time Than Other Spots

History of Dogs Recognizing Their Own Smell


There has been a long and complex debate as to whether or not dogs can recognize themselves and if they have any form of self-recognition. Although it is most commonly believed that dogs do not, more recent studies and theories are changing the way we see things. Some believe that dogs can recognize their reflection, but don't care about their appearance, while others think it is because dogs recognize themselves through scent and not sight. 

Exploring the last conclusion further, research has suggested that dogs are much less concerned by visuals than higher primates like humans and apes. Dogs are much more in tune and connected to the world through their sense of smell, so it makes more sense for dogs to self-recognize through smell rather than sight. 

Although not an official study, one scientist took it upon himself to set up an experiment with his own dog to help confirm or deny his dog's ability to recognize his own scent. Over five long winters, the scientist would take his dog outside to go potty. The dog would pee in the snow in the same areas and the man would mark the spots where his dog peed. He also noted all of the other yellow marks in the snow from other dogs. He let his dog always sniff his and the other pee marks in the snow as well and proceeded to record all observations. 

The scientist was able to draw the conclusion that his dog would intently sniff the other dog's pee marks and would pee over them in an attempt to cover up the other scents. When the dog would go over and sniff his own marks, the dog would sniff for a shorter time and would not pee over them. This suggests that the dog was able to recognize his own scent and show much less interest in those areas, meaning self-awareness in dogs is present. 

Science Behind Dogs Recognizing Their Smell


A canine cognition researcher, Alexandra Horowitz, recently conducted a study to help confirm such beliefs and findings in a more formal and professional setting. In this study, three dozen dogs were used and each of them was presented with a container of their own urine and a container of their urine mixed with another dog's urine. 

She noted their behaviors and found that each dog sniffed the mixed urine much more intently and much longer than the container of solely their own urine. She also found that dogs who lived together spent much less time sniffing their housemate's urine than that of urine from an umfamilar dog. 

She also presented a smaller group of dogs with a container of their urine mixed with an essential oil and a container filled with only the essential oil. She found the dogs would sniff the container with their urine and the essential oil for a much longer time. This also suggested that dogs were much more interested in the change in their own urine than just in the different smell of the essential oil content. 

Training Dogs to Recognize Their Own Smell


Thankfully, you do not have to train your dog to recognize their own smell. this is something they can do on their own without any needed guidance from you. What you can do is train yourself to know when it is most likely your dog is sniffing an area because they recognize their own scent, or when they are simply just interested in the smell of something else. 

Your dog has their favorite spots they like to go to the bathroom outside or when they are on a familiar walk. Take note of these spots and when you take your dog outside or for a walk, see if they go back to them. If they do, which is highly likely, they will start off by sniffing those places.

If your dog is sniffing for a while, it is probably because another dog's scent is now there as well, and they are trying to figure it out. Your dog will proceed to pee over the spot to make their smell the prominent scent there again. If your dog sniffs for a shorter period of time and then simply walks off without doing anything, it is because they recognize their scent, it is uncontaminated, and they don't feel the need to mark their territory again.

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Written by a Samoyed lover Kayla Costanzo

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 06/01/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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