Whether dogs smell their own urine may seem like a query that will be difficult to delve deeper in. After all, how can we ultimately know since dogs are deprived from the ability to talk?
We can rely on our dog's responses when we track where our dogs have urinated in the past, and watch how they react upon smelling the area, yet, it may be challenging to interpret what they may really be thinking when those brains are connected to their powerful sniffers.
Interestingly, it seems like researchers have found ways to test whether dogs recognize their own urine and the results are in and surely interesting to discover!
Firstly, Do Dogs Have Self-Awareness?
When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we know exactly who that person is- it's us of course! This acknowledgment means we are blessed with a sense of self-awareness.
Interestingly though, self-awareness isn't something we are born with. Rather, it turns out that, when babies under the age of 9 months old look into a mirror, they just see a baby in front of them, explains Robert Louis Krulwich, a science correspondent for NPR news.
How do we know that for sure though, considering that babies can't talk? It's a process of exclusion obtained by testing babies and toddlers.
Indeed, through a simple test, it has been found that our sense of self-awareness is something that pops up a little later in life, basically when we are two-year-old.
The test is commonly referred to as "the mirror test." Basically, in this test, the babies and toddlers are marked with a marker on their forehead, and those with a sense of self-awareness will typically touch their face as soon as they notice the mark in their reflection in the mirror.
Two-year-old's' therefore passed the test while babies did not. A variety of animals also passed the mirror test including chimps, great apes, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, elephants, dolphins and magpies.
Interestingly, dogs failed to pass the test suggesting that they lack self-awareness.
Not so Fast Though!
Before assuming dogs lack awareness and are therefore banned from the self-conscious club, check this out.
Professor emeritus Marc Bekoff went the further mile taking into account that dogs are olfactory beings and as such, they have a strong sense of identity based on smells.
So in lieu of the mirror test, he proposed a self-recognition test custom-tailored to dogs and therefore based on scent. Sounds fair after all, since dogs are so in tune with their noses, no?
So say welcome to the "yellow snow test."
In this test, urine from other dogs in the snow was collected and relocated to other areas. The pee of the dog being tested was collected from the snow as well, and then Bekoff carefully observed the dog in question along with his reactions to the smells.
Over the course of five winters, Bekoff collected enough proof that dogs spend less time sniffing their own urine than the urine of other male or female dogs.
This implied that dogs are capable of recognizing their own pee which may be suggestive of having a "sense of mine-ness."
So Can Dogs Smell Their Own Urine?
The test above seems to strongly suggest that. After all, if a dog dedicates more time smelling the urine of other dogs, most likely that's sign he recognizes his own and perhaps finds it boring, however, more testing is necessary to prove the point.
A further test conducted by Gatti and published in the 2015 issue of Ethology Ecology & Evolution confirmed Bekoff's findings.
Inspired by Bekoff's yellow snow test, Alexandra Horowitz, conducted a further study. In this test, dogs were offered various canisters, one containing the scent of their own urine, another one containing the scent of their own urine along with an additional scent, one containing just the additional scent and another containing the scent of another dog's urine.
The study revealed that dogs were more interested in smelling the canister with their own urine with the additional scent. The behavior implies a recognition of their own odor and therefore a sense of "self," on top of demonstrating an attraction to novel odors.
If we think about it, the dog's interest in the presence of the additional scent added to their urine is quite similar to the two-year olds' interest upon noticing a red mark on their forehead in the mirror test. It's the novelty factor or the presence of something unusual that triggers investigation.
"I’d say that they (dogs) have a rudimentary theory of mind—one that’s not equivalent to a human adult, but that isn’t an absence of thinking about one’s self and others. They have, as we would suspect, some understanding of self, and some recognition of who they are as distinct from others.”~ Alexandra Horowitz
Dog Pee is Fascinating!
Ever wondered why dogs are so attracted to peeing and sniffing other dogs' pee? Pee is like a business card, it contains loads of information.
Us humans, with an inferior sense of smell, may never be able to fully appreciate this. This is why for us humans, pee is boring and considered just waste that is promptly flushed down the toilet. Instead, dogs find pee as very fascinating!
Pee is so rich of information, that dogs love spending several minutes a day just leisurely investigating and deciphering pee with their noses.
Dog pee is known for containing pheromones, basically chemical scents that reveal a lot of individualized information pertaining the dog who left it behind.
From sniffing pee, dogs can therefore deduce a lot of interesting details such as the dog's sex, reproductive status, age, health and even what the dog recently ate.
As mentioned, to dogs pee, is like business cards to humans. Now this is just one reason why dogs love to hike their legs and leave pee on tall items: this way, it's easy to find, and at nose-level. Just like people strategically leaving their business card on bulletin boards!
Discover here other fascinating reasons why dogs love to pee on vertical surfaces.
So Why Do Dogs Smell Their Own Urine?
The above tests have revealed that dogs are capable of recognizing their own urine, but they don't seem to be much interested in it.
Despite this, dogs may still stop for a few seconds to give it a sniff. We may not know exactly why they do this, but from what we know about dogs, we can make some educated assumptions, that at least make some sense. Of course, these are not proven by research, so take these assumptions with a grain of salt.
Checking the "Expiration Date "
When dogs stop to smell their own urine they may be evaluating whether the scent is still strong enough and detectable.
After all, the urine is left there for a specific purpose: leaving some "pee-mail" for other dogs to sniff. It therefore makes sense for dogs to check whether their "presence" can still be detected.
Feeling Intrigued by Additional Smells
A dog sniffing pee that was left for a while may also be sniffing something else that is intriguing. This goes back to confirm the research posted above.
It could therefore be that for some reason the dog's pee smells different, perhaps because of a recent dietary change or some medical problem.
Presence of Other Dog Pee
If your dog intently smells the area where he has previously deposited his urine, it could also be that another dog has peed on top of it. This practice is called "over marking."
Over marking is basically the tendency of dogs to pee on top of another dog's pee. It can be funny at times to watch, but pint-sized dogs have been seen trying to pee as high as possible so to cover the urine of larger dogs with their own scent.
You can read more about this peeing strategy in the article: why do dogs do hand-stands when peeing?
As seen, research unveils that dogs can smell their own urine. This can help us better understand our companions, and perhaps make us feel a little less impatient when our dogs stop often on walks to sniff urine spots.
Sniffing from a dog's perspective is knowledge, just as for humans seeing is. And while everyday walks may look habitual and even a tad boring to us humans, to dogs they are faceted with countless olfactory changes worthy of exploring.
- 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.
- Horowitz, Alexandra. “Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test.” Behavioural Processes 143 (2017): 17-24.
- Cazzolla Gatti, R., Velichevskaya, A.I., Gottesman, B.L., & Davis, K. (2020). Grey wolf may show signs of self-awareness with the sniff test of self-recognition. Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 33, 444 - 467.