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Whether dogs see themselves in the mirror is an interesting query. In order to obtain an accurate answer, we would need to firstly carefully observe how dogs react to seeing their image in a mirror.

The most interesting insights come from puppies. Puppies being a blank slate, may have never been in front of a mirror behavior, and therefore, it's interesting to observe how they respond. 

Based on their reactions, we can deduce that most likely puppies see themselves in the mirror, but the biggest question is whether they recognize themselves or not. 

Do Puppies See Themselves in the Mirror?

Yes, puppies give several signs suggesting that they see themselves in mirrors. 

Indeed, when puppies are exposed to a mirror for the very first time, they are likely to startle and perhaps even bark at their reflection.

 You may then see them virtually test for further investigation using their nose to sniff and maybe they'll even look behind the mirror, sort of like they do when they see a dog on T.V.

Some social pups may exhibit a play bow as if inviting another puppy to play, however, with time, most pups grow bored and learn to ignore their reflection. 

After a while, most puppies grow tired of trying to interact with "the other puppy."

After a while, most puppies grow tired of trying to interact with "the other puppy."

Do Dogs Recognize Themselves in the Mirror?

When we observe ourselves in a mirror, we know as a fact that that person is "us." This self-awareness though isn't something we are born with.

When a baby under 9 months, sees himself in the mirror, all they see is a random baby in front of them, explains Robert Louis Krulwich, a science correspondent for NPR news.

The sense of self-awareness is something that comes up later on, once the baby reaches the age of two. 

Indeed, it's around this time that, when toddlers' foreheads are marked with a marker, they'll instinctively touch their forehead giving us the first sign of proof of self-recognition.

Interestingly, this marked body mirror test has also been conducted on a variety of animals, with chimps, great apes, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, elephants, dolphins and magpies brilliantly pass the test.

When it comes to dogs though, they don't pass the mirror test. This seems to suggest that dogs are incapable of perceiving themselves as unique individuals, excluding them from the self-conscious club. 

Introducing the Snow Test For Dogs 

It must have felt disappointing for professor emeritus Marc Bekoff to learn that dogs lack the ability to recognize themselves. 

He must have felt that this verdict was unfair, especially considering how dogs are olfactory beings. So in lieu of the mirror test, he proposed a self-recognition test custom-tailored to dogs and their powerful olfactory system.

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Introducing the "snow test for dogs."  

Bekoff basically came up with the brilliant idea of collecting urine from other dogs that was soaked in the snow and relocated it to other areas. On top of this, he also collected his own dog's pee as well, and then he patiently observed his dog reactions to the smells over the course of five winters.

His results? Bekoff obtained proof that dogs spend less time sniffing their own urine compared to the urine of other dogs. 

This implies that dogs are capable of recognizing their own pee which may be suggestive of having a "sense of mine-ness."

Did you know? A further test conducted by Gatti and published in the 2015 issue of Ethology Ecology & Evolution further confirmed Bekoff's findings.

Loss of interest in the mirror is likely the result of phenomenon known as "habituation."

Loss of interest in the mirror is likely the result of phenomenon known as "habituation."

A Matter of Habituation

As seen, dogs see themselves in the mirror, but after some initial curiosity, after seeing their reflection the very first time, they seem to lose interest.

This occurs as a result of phenomenon known as "habituation." In other words, the mirror loses its initial saliency (it becomes rather insignificant) and the dog therefore learns to ignore it. 

This is after all a good thing, explains Julie Hecht, MSc, a canine behavioral researcher and science writer on Scientific American.

It would be a big waste of energy for a dog to repeatedly react to something that is part of their daily lives and doesn't pose any threat or carry any particular function. 

As domesticated animals, they must learn to quickly adapt to a vast array of stimuli otherwise it would be expensive energy-wise and highly maladaptive to constantly react to normal every-day things.

Of course, there may be exceptions to the rule, such as dogs who get a kick out of all the attention they may get from their owners when they give signs of interest to the mirror or interact with it.

Or when the mirror is placed in a new location or the dog hasn't seen one for a while, you may see a return to the initial interest, a phenomenon known as "spontaneous recovery."

But , yes, in most cases, dogs quickly learn to ignore mirrors. "Since mirrors and reflective surfaces are common and typically permanent fixtures, habituation can happen rather quickly," further points out Julie Hecht. 

References:

  • NPR News: Sniff, Therefore I Am. Are Dogs Self-Conscious? by Robert Krulwich
  • M. Bekoff. “Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.” Behavioural Processes. Vol. 55, August 2001, p. 75.
  • Roberto Cazzolla Gatti (2016) Self-consciousness: beyond the looking-glass and what dogs found there, Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 28:2, 232-240
  • Scientific America, What Do Dogs See in Mirrors?, Julie Hecht, MSc 

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