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Who Is That Gorgeous Dog?
Seeing themselves in the mirror

Peanut bounded up the stairs fully of puppy pep and sporting an expression of extreme happiness. She had never been to our house and loves to explore new places. Her light-hearted mood would likely have continued if not for the mirrors all along our closet doors. When she saw her reflection, her entire affect changed. She stiffened and barked, then charged at the mirror.

I have no idea how this dog vs mirror scenario would have played out if Lucy (another of the dogs in Peanut’s household) hadn’t come in and barked at Peanut. The puppy became more interested in Lucy than in her reflection, and came with the older dog out of the room and back down the stairs. Because Peanut seemed distressed by seeing her own image in the mirror, we closed the door to that room to keep her out.

There has been a lot of research on how animals react to seeing themselves in the mirror because it can tell us a lot about their cognitive abilities. If they recognize that the reflection is their own image, it provides evidence that they have a sense of self-awareness. If they don’t appear to do so, the results can be hard to interpret. One of the ways that this idea is explored experimentally is to expose animals to mirrors until they are familiar with them. The next step is to put a mark of paint on the animals and then give them the opportunity to look in a mirror again. If they see the reflection and attempt to touch or remove the spot of paint on their own body, scientists conclude that they are self-aware.

Much work in this area has been done on primates with great apes, but not monkeys, typically showing signs of self-awareness. Dolphins, elephants, and magpies have also “passed” this test. Dogs have not generally done well at the mirror test, though some people, including Marc Bekoff, have argued that dogs are more olfactory than visual so a scent test is more appropriate for investigating whether they are self aware. Bekoff studied his male dog’s reactions to his own urine and to the urine of other dogs and found some evidence that his dog recognizes his own urine. This concept of “mineness”—belonging to me—suggests self-awareness, but it is certainly not conclusive. The research was published in the article “Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.” The method has come to be known as the “Yellow Snow Test.”

We have to be careful not to assume that a failure to recognize a reflection in the mirror as oneself means a lack of a self-awareness. In addition to vision not being the proper sense to use in such a test, sometimes the problem is that the animal is too young. For example, humans generally pass this test, but babies under 18-months are confused by it.

Have you had the opportunity to observe your own dog’s response to looking in a mirror?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

photo by Molly Marshall/Flickr

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