Can Dogs See in Mirrors?

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Introduction

We've all seen the videos. Whether it's on YouTube or the Dodo, that adorable clip of a pooch dancing and barking at its reflection is bound to warm your heart.

For some time, people have pondered over self recognition and its development in humans. It takes human babies 18 to 24 months to understand what they're seeing in the mirror. Recognition requires a powerful consciousness of self. Does this consciousness exist in man's best friend? Read on to find out!

Signs Your Dog Can See in Mirrors

Puppies confronting a mirror for the first time may believe the image to be another dog. When your pup looks into a mirror, there is usually one of two responses: your pup may believe the reflection is another dog and bark or be tempted to play, or your pup may do absolutely nothing. 

If your dog believes the reflection is another dog, interest will probably be lost once their actions don't get a response. Usually, after this occurs, dogs will just ignore their reflection. These types of behaviors suggest that dogs don't really understand that they are looking at themselves in the mirror.

Researchers have used something called "The Mirror Test" to study whether different species recognize a reflection as their own. The test includes researchers painting red, odorless, dots on the animal's face and then gauging the animal's reaction in the mirror. 

Animals that see the red dots on their face in the mirror will start to touch their own face. This shows a sense of recognition and an understanding that the dots are on their own face. Animals who have failed the mirror test, like canines, do not show an interest in their mirrored reflection when there are red dots are on their face.

Body Language

Body signs that your pooch sees a reflection include:
  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Wag tail
  • Play bowing

Other Signs

Other signs may also include:
  • Circling
  • Immediately stopping to stare at reflection
  • Startled behavior
  • Other playful behavior

The Science Behind Dogs Seeing in Mirrors

Although your pup may be able to see a reflection in the mirror, this doesn't mean your pup understands what is being seen. Dogs evolved in a way that requires communication through scent. Therefore, the sense of smell is way more important for dogs than visual self-recognition.

Dogs have the ability to recognize the familiar scent of other dogs and humans. Doggie brains can identify smells at least 1,000 times better than humans can! Because of this, some researchers have theorized that in order to find out if dogs have a sense of self, rather than asking dogs to recognize their own reflection, perhaps we should ask dogs to recognize their own scent. One evolutionary biologist tested this theory using his own dog, Jethro.

In something called "The Yellow Snow Study," "[o]ver five winters [the evolutionary biologist] walked behind Jethro and scooped up his yellow snow and moved it to different, clean, locations some distance down the trail. [He] also gathered yellow snow from other dogs and moved it. There is a real advantage to doing this experiment on snow because it holds the urine and is easily portable."

As predicted, Jethro marked his territory and urinated on the patches from other dogs. However, Jethro would leave his own patches alone, indicating a self-recognition or awareness through territorial behavior.

Animal behaviorists note that although dogs are very intelligent creatures, they still lack the cognitive ability to self-recognize visually, whether in a mirror, a video, or a picture. It takes humans 18 to 24 months to understand what they're seeing in the mirror. 

The ability to self-recognize takes an understanding of yourself, your own body movements, and what you're seeing in the reflection. This self-awareness is one of the most sophisticated aspects of consciousness. Although some animals have mastered that understanding (think dolphins, elephants, and apes), canines have not.

Training Your Dog to See in Mirrors

Because the ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is based on an innate, cognitive ability, it is not really possible to teach your pup to see a reflection as anything else besides an odorless, other dog. On the bright side, your pup doesn't really need to be trained to recognize reflections. 

Dogs are born to sniff. Since smell is really the important method for your pup to recognize humans and territorial areas, it may be worthwhile to take some time to observe and learn good sniffing behaviors. For example, when out on a walk, your pup may insist on sniffing every blade of grass, or when guests are over your pup may insist on sticking its nose into embarrassing places.

If these instances are annoying or embarrassing, it is ultimately up to you to take charge! If you are out on a walk, be sure to give your pup plenty of time to sniff around, but if you are ready to keep moving, give your pup a command such as “walk" and be sure to throw in a treat. If your pup is sticking its nose where the sun don't shine, try putting your dog on the leash so that you can control all movements. You can teach your pup to say hello by getting a scent from the guest's hand and rewarding them for staying calm. 

Remember that it is perfectly normal behavior for your pup to sniff the bottoms of other dogs! This is a friendly greeting that will help your pup develop relationships with other dogs.

How to React to Dogs Seeing in Mirrors:

  • Encourage positive behaviors with attention and interactions with other humans and dogs.
  • If your dog's self-awareness turns to possessiveness and jealousy, try not to encourage the behavior!
  • Control signs of aggression or negative behavior before they get out of control.

We Want to Hear About Your Dog Seeing in Mirrors!