A serious question: what does your dog see when he looks in the mirror? Perhaps a partner for the game. Sometimes an adversary. But can a dog in reflection recognize itself? And since we are talking about this, does the dog have an understanding of “himself”?
Mirror self-consciousness test
These are all abstract questions, and it is very a pity that dogs cannot answer them. Therefore, scientists who study the intelligence of animals have created a test that would measure these difficult to understand concepts. This test involves the use of an object that is in every home — mirrors. It is called the mirror recognition test itself, and since its introduction in the seventies, it remains the “gold standard” in determining whether a living being has self-awareness. Elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins are animals that have passed this test, which suggests that they have an awareness of themselves. But a large number of other primates, as well as other highly intelligent creatures, such as octopuses, the mirror either caused embarrassment, or did not arouse interest at all.
Self-awareness in dogs
Dogs, for example, as you undoubtedly know, if you have ever had a dog, have overwhelmed this test. They either do not understand, or do not care at all about what is happening with the two-dimensional mirror image of the animal, which has no smell. They may try to fight the dog in the mirror or play with it, but very few dogs demonstrate such behavior, which would show that they recognize the reflection as their own. In accordance with the standards set by the test, this means that dogs lack the ability to self-identify. However, despite this, some leading scientists began to question the credibility of this test. “People say that this type of animal doesn’t have an awareness of itself, because they tested it with a mirror,” said primatologist Frans de Val. “But I want to say that self-awareness is a much broader concept.” I can’t imagine that a cat or a dog, even if they don’t recognize themselves in a mirror, do not have an awareness of themselves. ”
The relevance of the test for dogs
In such a case, it is possible that the inability of these animals to pass the mirror test speaks more about the lack of imagination in people than about the lack of self-awareness in animals. That is what de Val writes in his scientific papers. Just think about it: why does a mirror have to mean anything to an animal? Some new approaches to the mirror test suggest that the question of self-consciousness is not a closed one, that is, one that can only be answered with “yes” or “no”. In fact, this question has a range of results, and the most outstanding and creative activity in this area is carried out with the use of dogs.
What is this test based on?
It is said that the mirror test is based on the observations that Charles Darwin made when at the London Zoo he looked at an orangutan named Jenny, who was admiring his reflection in the mirror. This impression astounded the scientist beyond measure. In the seventies, psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. discovered the notes and, based on them, created a mirror self-awareness test, which he then called "The first experimental demonstration of self-esteem among representatives of subhuman forms."
How did it all begin?
This is what the classic version looks like: the experimenter places odorless colored paint on the body of an animal, and then places a mirror in front of this animal. If an animal tries to get rid of paint, then it is assumed that he has self-consciousness, that is, he understands that his reflection is in the mirror, and notices that something is wrong with his appearance. Virginia Morell, a scholar and writer, formulated this idea as follows: an animal that passes the test reacts to an unfamiliar mark "just as you or I would react to a mustard stain that we would notice on our collar in the reflection."
Analogy with human psychology
The connection with self-awareness in this case is borrowed from the psychology of human development. “In human development, when he begins to recognize himself in a mirror at the age of about two years, his actions begin to become conscious,” explains de Val. People begin to show so-called self-conscious emotions, such as pride, shame or embarrassment. They also begin to use personal pronouns such as "I" and "me." The theory suggests that recognizing yourself in a mirror signals that you at least begin to understand your “I.”
Does self-consciousness mean for dogs the same as for humans?
At least, this is relevant for people and, perhaps, for animals whose brains are similar to humans, tuned to social intelligence. However, again, not every brain on earth works like a human. Human perception of the world is largely based on the fact that people see, for many animals, other feelings are of great importance. Returning to dogs, it is worth saying that they have good eyesight (they may not see colors as clearly as people, but they are not color blind), but they do not realize the world through the eyes, they do it through their nose. That is why a few years ago, a very inventive researcher created an analogue of the mirror dough, which is best suited for dogs and their excellent sense of smell.
Special test for dogs
This experiment became known as the “study of yellow snow,” and it is as disgusting as you might think. About fifteen years ago, animal intelligence researcher Mark Bekoff was unhappy that dogs could not pass the mirror test and, accordingly, turned out to be animals without self-awareness. And so he developed his own test for his dog Jethro. “For five winters, I put on gloves when I walked my dog Jethro, and watched where he was needing, and then endured this yellow snow. And then I bore snow with the urine of other dogs, ”said Bekoff, who is now an honorary professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. The essence of the experiment was as follows: if Jethro showed less interest in his own urine, it could demonstrate self-awareness in an animal guided by smell. That is exactly what happened, and Bekoff later published the results of his experiment in 2001. “It was really easy to do,” he said, “but people looked at me strangely.”
More extensive research
The problem with this study was that it included only Jethro. And so, in 2016, Alexandra Horowitz, who studies animal intelligence at Barnard University and runs a dog intelligence laboratory there, conducted a study of yellow snow in the laboratory. About three dozen dogs participated in this study, which were offered canisters containing either their own urine, or the urine of other dogs, or their own urine, to which researchers added other smells. Horowitz still analyzes the results of the study, but first experiments show that, as in the case of Jethro, dogs were less interested in their own smell. However, Horowitz is not yet sure what exactly this can say about the identity of dogs. “I do not think that this is a test of self-awareness,” she said. “But he can tell you something about the personality of the dogs.”