Although there is some evidence to suggest that dogs might have a level of self-awareness, there is no evidence to suggest that dogs know what they look like. In fact, a famous test called The Mirror Test indicates that dogs do not know what they look like.
Have you ever put your dog in front of a mirror and said “look, that’s you”?
Maybe your dog has barked at themselves in the mirror, thinking it’s another dog. The suggestion that our dogs can recognize themselves in the mirror is an interesting one to consider.
Today we will discuss whether or not dogs know what they look like and give some evidence to support both sides.
What You'll Learn
Why It’s Complicated
There is evidence to suggest some species cannot recognize their own reflection, dogs being one of the animals in question.
One of the most common arguments against dogs being able to recognize themselves is that they sometimes bark at a mirror or their reflection in a window, suggesting that dogs view the animal staring back at them as a threat.
Dogs usually won’t try to play with the dog in the mirror as they would if a real animal was staring back at them. A dog will be spooked for a second, but after a while, it’s not even something they think twice about.
This suggests that dogs have some understanding that what they are looking at is not a regular dog, but still doesn’t prove self-recognition.
The reason that this is complicated is because dogs identify people and other animals through scent, in addition to using their other senses. Since the mirror won’t have a dog’s scent, it is possible that dogs can’t recognize the reflection as a living thing, so they aren’t bothered by it.
The Mirror Test
Otherwise known as the “mark test” (developed by Gordon Gallup Jr.), this is an experiment used to determine the level of self-awareness that different animals experience while looking at their own reflection.
A scientist would place an object on the animal, such as a sticker. If the animal looked at their reflection and attempted to remove the object, it shows that they understand their own presence in the mirror. Some animal species understood their reflection, while others did not.
Chimpanzees, elephants, parrots, and dolphins can recognize their reflection, but the consensus is still unknown for dogs.
In this case, it is difficult to group all dog breeds together since they do have many differences. The dogs used in this experiment failed the mirror test.
In a separate study, 18% of dogs showed curiosity in the mirror, suggesting that some will understand the concept of reflection more than others. Dogs are a varied species. Each individual dog will have unique characteristics. This is partially attributed to breed.
Even though most dogs fail the mirror test, there have been other experiments done to determine the level of self-awareness they have of their body. This one was carried out using a toy attached to a mat. The dog needed to lift their body from the mat to move the toy.
If a dog was able to realize that they needed to get up for the toy to move, it showed that they have self-awareness of their body in a physical setting. The dogs in this experiment passed.
We know dogs can recognize their own scent, although the lines can get blurred when introduced to similar animals such as cats, pigs, goats, etc. This is more related to scent than a similar physical appearance.
The previously mentioned test stated animals like dogs are more likely to recognize people and animals by scent rather than physical appearance. This explains why a dog will stop reacting to their reflection… they don’t recognize it as a living thing.
We know dogs can change their behavior to appeal to humans or other animals. Sometimes your dog will rest their head on your lap to look up at you with big eyes. This is partially due to learned behavior, but suggests that dogs are aware of their physical appearance and how it can be used to complete a task.
Dogs can move their eyes to get a better view. You may have noticed this if you have a front window with blinds. Dogs move their head so that just their eyes are looking out of the small, uncovered space. This shows the level of self-awareness that dogs have about their bodies.
Factors That Impact Self-Recognition
Levels of intelligence vary among breeds. Border collies show the highest cognitive skill level, while bulldogs and Afghan hounds scored the lowest. Higher cognitive scores illustrate how fast your dog learns new concepts.
Regardless of your dog’s intelligence, they will be able to learn new concepts with age and experience. Even if your pet doesn’t comprehend the entirety of their reflection, they will realize that the mirror is not a threat after they see it enough times.
What Does This All Mean For Your Dog?
Most dogs will lose interest in the mirror once they realize they get no response from it. If you recently got a dog or added a new floor mirror to your room, you can expect their curious behavior to stop within a few weeks.
If your dog finds a fascination with the mirror to the point where they are barking, it is worth trying to figure out a solution to the problem.
There are a few recommendations to prevent your dog from going crazy in front of the mirror, including tapping on the mirror with your dog present and leaving it accessible so that your dog can explore it further on their own.
There isn’t enough evidence to show that dogs can recognize reflection as a species, but this is not to say that your own dog does not understand their image! Each dog is different. You are the best person to observe your pet’s behavior and see for yourself!
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