Are Dogs Self-Aware? What do you think?
We humans love to anthropomorphize our beloved pets. Naturally one of the big questions we have is, “Are dogs self-aware?”
Self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognize oneself. Being visual creatures, we measure self-awareness by whether looking in the mirror sparks recognition. Human babies can recognize themselves in the mirror quite early, around 18 months. Chimps recognize themselves in the mirror, too. Gorillas, dolphins and whales can… sometimes. Magpies definitely can.
But not dogs. Dogs think the mirror-dog is another dog. They may act interested in mirror-dog or aggressive toward it, but they don’t see mirror-dog as “me.” And the interest is usually fleeting because mirror-dog doesn’t smell like a dog.
Why Dogs Fail the Mirror Test
The mirror test is admittedly skewed toward animals that are highly visual – which dogs are not. Dogs are olfactory creatures first and foremost. A dog’s sense of smell is the reason a dog can happily spend ten minutes analyzing a blade of grass, detect an oncoming seizure in their owner, or sniff out a bomb with greater accuracy than a mass spectrometer… and why he doesn’t care one bit about a silly mirror-dog.
So it’s no wonder that the researchers are really at fault when it comes to their belief that dogs don’t have a sense of self. All animals have a different way of experiencing the world so using a human-based test like the mirror test is silly (come on, scientists, think like a dog, not like a human!). Using mirror-dog to test whether a dog knows the concept of “me” doesn’t address the dog’s way of perceiving the world. The dogs just didn’t care about mirror-dog, but that doesn’t mean they’re not self-aware. It means the testing methodology was inappropriate for dogs! So now what?
If you call your dog for a walk, “Sparky, wanna go for a walk?” one might assume that the dog is just responding to the excited tone of your voice as well as to the words you’re using (dogs can learn about 165 words); however, if you use a different tone of voice and say the dog’s name only, does the dog respond? If he’s listening, he probably will respond – but again, it could be because he has learned the word. Whether he recognizes that he is Sparky or whether he associates Sparky with a command… that remains to be seen.
Dogs Do Understand The Concept of “Me”
Let’s look at some ways dogs demonstrate self-awareness. They do know the concept of “me.”
If a dog snatches your lunch from the kitchen counter and you yell at it, the dog knows exactly who you’re yelling at. Chances are the dog will act super guilty even before you start yelling. So the dog must have some sense of “me.” When the dog acts guilty, he must know that “he” did something wrong.
And how about affection? When your dog sees you petting another dog, he may act jealous and demand attention too. He knows that Muffin is getting loving and he’s not. What? How dare you? I want loving too!
This seems to suggest that dogs have some sense of self, although they do not have a visual representation of themselves. Seeing themselves in a mirror or their reflection in a puddle won’t generate a self-aware response, but as it turns out, smelling themselves does.
Finally, some researchers are thinking more like dogs! A new study published in the November 2015 issue of Ethology Ecology & Evolution suggests that dogs are self-aware. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, animal behaviorist at Tomsk State University in Russia, agrees that the mirror test is all wrong in testing self-awareness in dogs. Instead, he uses scent to test self-awareness. A dog recognizes its own scent and won’t spend much time analyzing it – they’ll just walk on by, and move on to investigate a scent that isn’t theirs. Gatti believes that “If they recognize that this smell is mine, then in some way they know what is ‘mine.’” If a dog is capable of understanding the concept of “mine,” then they must be self-aware.
Since we can’t communicate with dogs in a way that delves deeper into how they process the information we call the world, we’ll probably never know the extent to which our furry friends understand that they are individuals. However, if we are eventually able to prove that dogs are self-aware, this could change the way they are seen in the eyes of the law – not only as sentient beings but as individuals – and this could give them protective and legal rights.
But then again… quantum physics suggests that everything is energy and everything is one. We humans perceive ourselves to be individuals. But that’s like seeing ourselves as individual drops in an endless ocean… but we cannot remove ourselves and be separate from an ocean that has no surface, bottom or shores. Heavy, I know… but maybe dogs are way ahead of us spiritually and don’t feel the need to identify as “me” – because they are one with everything.
So, Are Dogs Self-Aware? Now, it’s your turn. What do you think? Let’s discuss it in the comments.