Are dogs self-aware? Do they recognize themselves as individuals, distinct from others?Other Animals Have It: Although rather tricky topics of study, animal self-recognition, self-awareness and consciousness have been examined by scientists for decades. Animal consciousness is neither a new idea, nor is it a radical way of thinking. Lucky for us, we no longer live in the age of Descartes when animals other than those of the human variety were viewed as non-thinking automatons who lacked both consciousness and the ability to feel emotions. (Though, personally I can think of a few humans who may fit that description).
Evidence for at least a rudimentary sense of self-awareness is available in a wide range of non-human animal species. A leading theory of the evolutionary benefits of this trait is that the ability to distinguish self from other helps social animals (including humans) to recognize their place within their social group, to cooperate successfully with others, and to identify individuals who are outside of their group. Dogs, also members of a highly social species, are now known to have much more complex inner lives than we once gave them credit for. They readily follow the gaze of another dog or person, understand pointing, attend to the emotional states of others, and demonstrate rudimentary aspects of perspective taking (knowing what someone else can see or know). Having a sense of self as distinct from others is an additional cognitive talent that dogs may possess given their highly social nature and the functional benefits of self-recognition and self-awareness.
Mirror, Mirror: The classic test used to study self-recognition has been the mirror self-recognition (MSR) test. Using this method, the subject animal examines her image in a mirror after an area of her body has been surreptitiously marked with a spot of dye. The animal’s reaction to this alteration is observed and if the subject uses the mirror to examine the spot on her body, this attention is interpreted as evidence for recognizing the image in the mirror as oneself rather than simply an image of a like-looking animal with a funny spot on her head. Species that regularly pass the MSR test include the great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans), dolphins, a single elephant, and even some bird species, such as the Magpie. Oh yeah, and most humans pass, as long as they are older than 2-years of age.
What about Dogs? Dogs however, have routinely failed this test. Dog folks are now certainly muttering, “Well of course, dogs do not use vision as their primary special sense – they use olfaction – their noses“. This difference is significant, since dogs believe what their nose tells them first and foremost, compared with primate species such as ourselves, who perceive the world primarily through vision. Additionally, because of anatomical and social differences, dogs do not regularly self-groom in the same manner that primates do, so are not as apt to care about an unexpected spot that suddenly shows up on the top of their head. For those who study dogs, clearly, another type of test was needed.
Enter Alexandra Horowitz and her team of dog pee researchers at Barnard College in New York City.
The Significance of Pee: Dogs regularly investigate the urine scent of other dogs. There is evidence that they spend more time investigating the urine markings of other dogs and less time sniffing their own urine, which suggests that dogs distinguish their own scent from that of others. Using this knowledge, Horowitz devised a new type of mirror test for dogs – this one based upon their primary sense – smell. She reasoned that just as a chimpanzee notices the sudden change in appearance when a spot of dye shows up on her head, if dogs recognize their own scent, then they too should be surprised to find an unexpected change in that smell and attend to it (sniff it) for a longer period of time. She devised a pair of controlled experiments that asked, using their sense of smell – “Do dogs recognize themselves?”
The Study First, the team of researchers collected the pee of a group of volunteer dogs (well, okay, the owners volunteered their dogs’ pee. We are not really sure how the dogs felt about that part). The author also collected urine from her own dog, who would serve as the “unfamiliar dog” sample. Each dog was tested individually with a set of three scent canisters for three separate trials and comparisons. One canister contained water only (decoy sample), one contained the subject dog’s urine (self), and the third contained either (1) the subject dog’s adulterated urine (marker self), (2) the urine of an unfamiliar dog (other), or (3) the scent of the adulteration substance alone (marker). Two experiments were conducted, with the only difference being the way in which the subject dog’s urine was altered. In Exp. 1, a tissue sample of dog spleen was added to the urine. In Exp. 2, a small amount of anise essential oil was added.
Results: Similar to mirror tests, the researchers expected dogs to pay more attention to a scent of themselves that was unexpectedly altered compared with their reaction to their unaltered urine scent. Here is what they found:
- Who’s this guy? As earlier research has shown, dogs spent more time investigating the urine of an unfamiliar dog compared with the time that they spent sniffing their own urine. (“Hmm…. Smells like I was here earlier……whoa…..hello….who is this new dude who peed here too?)
- Hey Sally! Interestingly, dogs did not spend more time investigating the urine of a known dog (their housemate) compared with time spent smelling their own urine. (Looks like Sally was visiting at the same time I was. Funny, I don’t remember seeing her here….”)
- Does this smell funny to you? Last, dogs spend significantly more time investigating the canisters that contained their altered urine scent compared with how long they investigated their unadulterated urine. This difference occurred with both types of marker substance – spleen tissue and anise oil. Dogs also returned to the canisters more often when their urine was compared with their adulterated urine. (“Wowza. This is weird. Did I eat something odd last night? Maybe I am getting a cold? What the heck IS that smell on me???”)
The authors conclude that these results support the use of their newly designed (and quite ingenious, if I may add) “smell test” as species-relevant analog to the MSR test. The fact that the dogs spent more time investigating their own urine when it had been unexpectedly changed supports some level of recognition of their own odor and by extension, perhaps a rudimentary “sense of self”. Similarly, dogs were highly interested in the scent of unfamiliar dogs (Hey! Who’s this guy??) but not to the odor of their housemate.
Yeah, I have an opinion on this one. First though, I have to say that this is one of the most creative and clever studies that I have read in some time. (Not to mention it being ripe for witticisms and puns……).
The results of this study suggest that dogs may possess one of the cognitive traits, self-recognition, that humans have historically co-opted for our species and our species alone. In past, we have worked diligently to make clear cognitive distinctions between human animals (us) and non-human animals (everyone else). A wide range of traits have been used for this purpose, many of which have fallen like a house of cards as they are discovered to exist in other animals. Examples include the expression of emotions, perspective taking, tool use and tool making, existence of culture, ability to reason, and the demonstration of altruism. We also know that humans do not hold exclusive rights to the expression of self-awareness and consciousness and are not the only species capable of complex thought, internal representations of the world, planning, intention and deception. Yeah, we do have language and we are capable of “meta-thinking” (thinking about thinking), but many types of cognition and complex thought have been demonstrated to exist in some form in a host of other animals, including dogs. So what is the big deal? Is there really anything to argue about here? Well, yeah, as a dog trainer (a clicker trainer, I must emphasize), I think that there is an important point to be made.
It is this. Behaviorism alone can no longer be enough. The science of behaviorism and its application in dog training no longer can adequately capture and address all that is dog. Sorry to all of you purists out there, but there it is. (And remember, I am a clicker trainer).
Here is my argument: Although dogs respond well to the laws of behaviorism (just as humans do), the fact that we successfully use operant and classical conditioning to train dogs should not be confused for evidence that dogs are lacking in a host of mental skills that fall higher on the cognitive complexity scale. Behaviorism and social cognition are not mutually exclusive sciences (though to listen to some trainers and some scientists, you would think they were disciplines existing on different planets).
The reason that I bring up this particular issue in this particular essay is because self-recognition and self-awareness seem to be a current “hot spot” in this debate between behaviorism and cognitive science. Pure behaviorism has its benefits – mainly it works great when applied as a training technique. However, given the boatloads of research published by cognitive scientists that demonstrate the social complexity of the domestic dog (and now – self-recognition!), we cannot discount as trainers evidence showing that dogs pay attention to the social cues of humans and of other dogs, that they possess some level of perspective taking, that they regularly learn through observation of others, that they can recognize one another and understand intent by the sound of their barks, and that they can recognize one another and themselves through smell. It is time for trainers to embrace both of these important and enlightening bodies of science. We should support and use behaviorism because it provides simple and elegant rules for training that work, and we must also encourage studies of canine social cognition because they continue to teach us more about the internal lives, experiences and perceptions of our canine best friends.
Off of soap box. Back to pee jokes.
Cited Study: Horowitz, A. Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test. Behavioural Processes, 2017; 143:17-24.
Read more about dog cognition, behavior and training in Linda Case’s new book, “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog” (2018)