Do you ever try to imagine the nature of your dog’s soul? Do you wonder how he would talk if he spoke your language? (Southern drawl, Jersey Shore…) What career path would he choose? How would he style his OKCupid profile to attract optimal mates? If so, you’re not alone. Many pet owners have wondered if dogs are self-aware.
Humans are highly skilled at projecting our own traits onto animals, but perhaps the central concern in this exercise is a deeply philosophical one. Are dogs self-aware? Do they know they are conscious beings with individuality? Do they know their owners are actually separate entities? Or do they think we are extensions of their “dogness”?
Scientists have absolutely explored this question, but the answer is murky. Researchers have used two method for judging self-awareness in animals—the mirror test and the sniff test. Let’s discuss.
Are Dogs Self-Aware?: Two Tests to Tell
The Mirror Test: Dogs Fail
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Gordon Gallup was the first to develop a self-awareness test for animals (mostly mammals). He first put chimpanzees in front of a mirror so they could see themselves. He later added a dye mark on the chimpanzees’ foreheads and let them look in the mirror again.
The chimps realized something had changed in their appearance, and they tried to touch and wipe away the markings on their faces. This indicated the chimpanzees understood the correlation between themselves and what they saw in the mirror. In their minds, Mirror Image = Me. This was proof of self-awareness.
Other animals responded similarly—bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, humpback whales, magpies, and at least one elephant. Dogs, however, do not respond in the same way, despite their intelligence and attentiveness. Dogs generally respond as if the image in the mirror belongs to another dog, not themselves. They tend to become sheepish, aggressive, or nervous, according to their overall disposition toward other dogs.
But some argue this test is too visually oriented to be successful, since dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell to assess others and their environment. This is where the sniff test comes in!
The Sniff Test: Dogs Pass
Dog cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz developed a nose-centered version of the mirror test designed by Gallup. In this experiment, dogs were presented with their own urine, another dog’s urine, their own urine plus an additive, and the additive itself.
The thinking here is that a dog will not bother smelling her own urine—she can quickly tell the urine is hers, and will devote her time to understanding who else has been wandering through her territory. Horowitz’s experiment affirmed this hypothesis. Dogs spent more time smelling every urine sample that did not smell exactly like their own.
But does recognition of one’s own urine prove that dogs understand their own individuality? They may just be highly acquainted with their own scent.
So, Are Dogs Self-Aware or Not?
Well, we don’t quite know. For the time being, we can’t say for sure that dogs are or aren’t self-aware. We do know that they can adjust their behavior according to their owners’ responses.
Dogs understand when they’ve done something we don’t like—they cower when scolded. And they can modify their actions to please their humans. In that regard, they know at some level that a change to self can equal a positive change in the other (human owner).
We’re still waiting for incontrovertible proof that dogs get it—that they understand their selfhood. In the meantime, it seems more than sufficient that dogs share themselves (and their unconditional love!) with us.