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Are Dogs Self-Aware?

Written by FOTP Team

Updated

French Bulldog looking at reflection in mirror

Are Dogs Self-Aware?

For decades, researchers have been fascinated by the topic of self-awareness in dogs. How much do dogs know about the world, and their own place in it? What is the mirror test – and how do dogs perform? What do dogs remember about us and their lives? We’re here to uncover the latest research on self-awareness in dogs. 

What Is Self-Awareness?

Let’s start with the key question. ‘Self-awareness’ is a term coined by psychologists. It refers to our awareness about our bodies and actions (and consequences) as well as our feelings and decisions. 

In humans, it starts at the age of around 18 months. Tests show that this is when toddlers can recognize themselves in a mirror; seeing jam around their mouths, they might reach up and wipe it off. 

As we grow older, humans are able to analyse our decisions and take full responsibility for our actions. We can group self-awareness into three categories:

  1. Bodily self-awareness
  2. Social self-awareness
  3. Introspective self-awareness

Do dogs exhibit these types of awareness? In other words...

Is Your Dog Aware That He Exists?

Developed in the 1970s, the mirror test is a classic test for bodily self-awareness. Animals like apes, dolphins and elephants have shown signs of self-recognition when they see themselves in the mirror. (In one variation of this test, researchers place a mark on the animal’s face, to see if the animal will investigate it when looking in the mirror.)

Dogs have famously failed this test for many years.

Naturally, we have refused to accept this as evidence of our dogs’ cognitive ability. Some researchers argue that dogs have no need to know what they look like (or to check if their ears look great today) – and so this visual skill has never evolved. Dogs don’t care or even need to recognize their reflection. In fact, skills like size-awareness are way more important (since this allows a dog to estimate which part of the hedge he can squeeze through). 

So, determined to prove that dogs understand they have a “self”, researchers invented a canine version of the mirror test. This time they knew the dogs would ace it!

Of course they did.

In 2017, Dr Alexandra Horowitz applied the “Sniff Test of Self-Recognition” to a panel of dogs. She concluded that “dogs distinguish between the olfactory ‘image’ of themselves when modified: investigating their own odour for longer when it had an additional odour accompanying it than when it did not. Such behaviour implies a recognition of the odour as being of or from ‘themselves’.”

In other words, dogs know their own pee. And they’ll show interest or concern when their urine smells unusual. Dogs have been known to detect disease and illness in their owners by scent – showing us that sniffing is more important than viewing when it comes to self-awareness in canines.

Does Your Dog Know What He Looks Like?

Your dog has no need to recognize their “self” in a mirror. But they’re aware of their body and their existence, right?

Let’s go back to that hedge.

In 2020 R.Lenkei and team wrote the best-titled study ever (unofficial), That Dog Won’t Fit. They challenged dogs to get through gaps in a wall. They made this task more difficult and unpredictable by varying the size of the gap. 

What they found was this: When dogs perceived the gap as “too small”, they would approach it very slowly (perhaps doubtfully). When the gap looked large enough, they went more confidently towards it. In other words, dogs have a good grasp of their own size and capability. They’re aware that they have a body and self-control. 

Plus, they probably thought there were treats on the other side of the gap – so it was far more meaningful than looking in a mirror.

In another study which was conducted in 2021, Rita Lenkei found that dogs quickly realised that their own bodies were weighing down a mat that they were trying to lift. 

This test has been performed with toddlers, who were asked to bring the blanket that they sat on. Asked to bring a toy which was attached to the mat, dogs knew that their own bodies were preventing the mat from moving, and they got up before lifting the toy, proving once more that dogs have an awareness of their own body mass and conscious self-control to affect it. 

What Does Your Dog Remember?

Why do we want to know if dogs are socially self-aware? Well, for one thing, we want to know if they have a stash of precious memories – do dogs think, “I remember that time my owner stroked me after a bad cat hissed at me”?

We know our dogs remember who we are – they’re so thrilled when we walk through the door (although they might be anticipating their dinner). But you might have wondered... how does your dog’s social memory work?

In 2014, one very famous study compared different types of animals and found that dogs have very poor short-term memory – forgetting things in 2 minutes – placing them way behind species like dolphins (who can also, of course, recognize themselves in a mirror; very smug).

But this doesn’t exactly match up with our experience of dogs. For instance, your dog undoubtedly remembers what their leash means – and will probably become very excited when you bring it to the door. Your dog also knows what will happen when they tip the waste bin onto the floor (assuming they’ve done it before), and they’ll cringe when you come into the room and catch them in the act! 

This type of memory is called associative memory, and it’s a specific type of skill which can actually be proven in dogs.

More evidence: dogs can memorise many commands. Even if your dog isn’t an agility champion, they probably know lots of human words. (Count them. We bet it’s double-digits!) Some owners can say, “Where’s your ball?” and their dog will race around looking in the last place they saw it. (If they can’t find it, they’ll likely stand and look at their owner inquisitively, as if to say – what should I do now?)

Episodic memory is more complex. This is the skill of remembering events or episodes, and it’s important for us humans. Episodic memory includes an element of self-awareness, since you’re remembering the way you interacted in a situation. When we wonder if our dogs remember things, what we’re asking is whether they remember happy times.

Well, perhaps they do. In one groundbreaking study, researchers trained dogs to mimic their owner’s actions. They used the command “Do it” to ask dogs to do whatever their owner just did – which would be random actions like knocking over a bottle or tapping an upturned umbrella. They showed that even an hour later, dogs remembered what their owner had done. 

This study was groundbreaking because it appears to shatter early knowledge about canine memory (which isn’t always 2-minutes, especially when it comes to important facts). It suggests that dogs remember things about their owners, in particular (perhaps because the bond is so strong). 

But many experts still believe that dogs have poor memory and self-awareness. In 2014, Stanley Coren discussed this debate in Psychology Today. He reported on his personal experience and relayed the story of John Dignard, who has no short-term memory and relies on his “memory dog” to find the store exit or his car. His smart dog uses memory to track down the car in the car park or recall the route out of the store. Most dogs don’t require this type of memory skill – but when they do, they’re likely capable of it. 

 Do Dogs Remember Their Owners?

Here’s another question we’re all longing to know. Does your dog think about you when you’ve gone to work?

There are dozens of anecdotes about dogs waiting for their owners outside hospitals and offices, or at the garden gate, for many years – like the famous story of Hachiko. There is strong evidence that dogs feel sorrow and loss when humans or companion dogs die. Hachiko waited for Ueno to return from work; other dogs express mourning in different ways.

Does your dog remember you, or simply recognize you – and form a set of habits? 

Recognition is thought to be connected to scent for dogs. In other words, they know you (and every dog they’ve ever met) by your smell. In the case of their owners they associate it with companionship, rewards and food – and the daily greeting could become a ritual.

But there’s more than that in the way our dogs welcome us home. The human-dog bond (likened by some psychologists to the parent-child bond) is incredibly strong. It’s reflected in the way our dogs behave towards us on a daily basis – like seeking our company when they’re frightened, checking our moods when we’re down, or returning to us joyfully on a walk. 

We can be fairly sure that they appreciate our company and they trust us, and that’s been learned and remembered. Or perhaps it’s simply that we hope we have as much impact on our dogs as they do on us.