Reflection detection

June 11th, 2013

Dear Dogs Life,

This may sound like a strange question, but do dogs know they’re dogs? Sometimes my dog will come into my bedroom, where I have a full-length mirror, and look blankly at his reflection as though he doesn’t realise he’s actually looking at himself. A couple of times he’s even growled at the reflection, presumably thinking it was another dog! Even if I stand in front of the mirror with him, he doesn’t seem to make the connection, though surely he must recognise that the other reflection is me?

– Candy, via email

Dr Renee O’Duhring says: According to studies on the subject, dogs do seem to lack the same level of self-awareness that humans and a few other species — such as chimpanzees, orang-utans and dolphins — possess. Whereas humans recognise from an early age that an image in a mirror is a reflection of their self, dogs do not.

Some puppies and kittens will attempt to engage their reflection in play, and others will growl or hiss, but usually over time the animal comes to ignore the image. In the canine world, the sense of smell is much more important than sight. Observe how your dog can recognise their own scent on a walk, and differentiate it from the scent of other animals, and they will certainly impress with this skill. This may explain why your dog also does not recognise your reflection in the mirror — because the reflection has no scent, in your dog’s world it is not terribly important.

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