Can Dogs Understand a Mirror?

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Introduction

Has your dog ever walked past a mirror, saw their reflection, stopped, and barked? Do you walk over to the mirror with your dog and they won't even see themselves? If you've ever wondered what is going on when your dog looks in the mirror, there is an explanation for this! 

Puppies are more prone to seeing their reflection in the mirror and acting like it is another dog, leading to barking and play bowing at their reflection. Older dogs tend to simply ignore their reflection - like they can't even see themselves! In essence, dogs are not able to recognize their own reflection and do not have the same self-awareness as humans and some other animals have.

Signs of a Dog Understanding a Mirror

Puppies are generally the only ones who seem to care about seeing themselves in a mirror. However, they don't actually recognize their reflection as an image of themselves. If you bring home a young puppy and they happen to walk or run past a mirror, they may catch a glimpse of their reflection. If they do, many puppies will stop in front of the mirror and begin to bark, growl, show their teeth, snarl, or even whimper at their reflection. 

This may seem like an odd reaction when seeing themselves, but this is mostly because they don't recognize that reflection as an image of who they are. Instead, your dog thinks there is another dog and will react as such. 

Some puppies will get a bit aggressive, while other puppies will take it as another puppy looking to play! Therefore, instead of growling or barking, they may play bow in front of their reflection, run back and forth in front of the mirror, bark in a playful tone, or try to play chase with the reflection. 

Older dogs will react in a completely different way. Although there may be times they catch their image in a mirror, generally, an older pup will simply ignore their own reflection and seem like they don't even see anything. They may stare off at something else, not make any eye contact, and avert their eyes. 

Body Language

Here are some signs you might notice when your dog sees their reflection in a mirror:
  • Staring
  • Barking
  • Head tilting
  • Averting eyes
  • Exposed teeth
  • Play bowing

Other Signs

These are other signs you may notice if your dog notices their reflection:
  • Initiating Interaction
  • Acting Aggressively
  • Trying to Play Chase
  • Running Back and Forth

History of Dogs and Mirrors

Dogs do not have the ability to recognize their own reflection in a mirror the way humans and some other animals are able to. In fact, human babies are not even able to recognize their own reflection in a mirror as themselves until the ages of 18-24 months. Despite the fact babies might be fascinated by their reflection, they believe it is another baby and interact with them socially. 

Similarly, experiments confirmed the same sequence of events with chimps. Mirrors were placed in the chimps' home cages and at first, the chimps reacted as if they were seeing a reflection of another animal. However, just like humans, over time they began to recognize the reflection as themselves. They begin to touch parts of their face and bodies while carefully and intently looking at the movements in the mirror. 

Other animals including dolphins, gorillas, and orangutans respond to reflections in mirrors with the same level of self-awareness. Over time, we have found that dogs are not able to do this. They will always treat their reflection like another dog or just simply ignore it. 

A few conclusions could be drawn from these findings. The first one is that dogs lack total self-awareness and consequently lack consciousness. The second is that dogs do recognize their own reflection, but are just not concerned about their appearance like higher primates are. 

A third option some believe is because dogs are less concerned and affected by certain visual events compared to apes and humans, they don't acknowledge their reflection. Dogs are more in tune with their sense of smell, so perhaps testing the self-awareness in dogs should not be evaluated by their ability to recognize their own reflection. Rather, many dogs can recognize themselves through their own sense of smell. 

One dog owner/researcher has a fascinating story about their dog's ability to self-recognize their own personal scent. Over the course of five winters, the owner let their dog urinate in the snow. The owner would mark which urine covered snow was his dogs and also take note of other stained yellow snow from other dogs. He would let his dog go up and sniff each urine mark to record his observations. 

Essentially, the dog would intently sniff other dogs' urine for a while and then proceed to pee over that snow. However, when the dog came upon his own urine snow, he would sniff it for less time and would not pee over the marks. In the end, this long experiment suggests dogs do have a sense of self-awareness. 

Science Behind Dogs and Mirrors

Science has long been fascinated with animals' abilities to recognize themselves in mirrors. Scientists, who study animal cognition, were able to come up with a special test that allows us to measure this hard-to-answer-question.

In 1970, a specific test called a mirror self-recognition test was created. Since its inception, it has been considered the gold standard for measuring which animals possess self-awareness. 

The original version of the test has the experimenter place a colored, but completely odorless dye somewhere on the animal's body. They are then placed in front of a mirror and if the animals picks, points, or looks at the spot of colored dye in some fashion, it suggests they are able to self-recognize. 

For instance, chips and gorillas are able to pick out the dot on their bodies and show interest in the spot - this means they are able to recognize the dot as being on their own fur. When dogs were used in this spot experiment, they were never able to recognize the dot on their body and did not show interest in what the dot was by staring or pawing at it - suggesting their lack of ability to identify themselves in a mirror. Over the years, the test has been adapted and altered a bit, but the same premise still remains. 

Training Your Dog to Understand a Mirror

Although you cannot train your dog to recognize their reflection in the mirror, you can do an at-home, DIY dot test to see if your dog may possibly recognize themselves in the mirror. Who knows, maybe your pup will be the first dog on the planet to recognize their own reflection!

This is super easy to recreate at home and you can do it with the materials you have laying around the house. All you need to do is find a sticker, piece of colored tape, or even grab a piece of colored paper and use a piece of tape on the back. Whatever you have, attach the colored dot to your dog. The best spot to do this is on their front leg, chest, or even their forehead, if it does not distract them too much. You want to avoid them trying to paw it off because it is uncomfortable. 

Once the dot is in place, put them in front of a mirror. You may have to hold them there for a bit or entice them to look in the direction of the mirror with a treat, although you ideally want to avoid this. When they are in front of the mirror, try and see if they catch sight of the colored dot in the reflection. 

If they do catch sight of the dot, they will start pawing or scratching at the spot in order to touch it or get it off. However, if they seem to not notice it, don't seem interested in the dot, or won't even look at their reflection in the mirror, it is likely because they don't recognize their reflection as themselves or your dog just simply does not have an interest in his/her reflection!

Safety Tips If Your Dog Sees Their Reflection

  • Keep a close eye on their behavior.
  • Make sure they aren't too aggressive.
  • Make sure they don't knock over the mirror.