Q: Do dogs recognize themselves in the mirror?
A: This question really captured my attention because, on more than one occasion, I have held my Chihuahua up to a mirror hoping to get a reaction, and she just looks around as though her reflection is not even there.
This reader who called in this question told me he has noticed the same thing with his dog.
So, why the lack of interest?
I found a good article on this topic in “Psychology Today” by Stanley Coren, who has written numerous books about dog behavior.
Coren said puppies who encounter a mirror for the first time might think it’s another dog and could even try to interact with it. After a short time, they lose interest and, in the future, pay no attention to the image in the mirror.
To explain the reason for this, Coren points out that people recognize their own image in a mirror because people have the mental capacity of self-awareness. “In effect we must be able to mentally step outside of ourselves and consider ourselves as separate entities from the rest of the world,” he writes.
Coren mentions a study in which spots were placed on the faces of 18- to 24-month-old babies, who then were shown their reflection. The babies would touch those spots on their own faces when they noticed them in the mirror.
A similar experiment was conducted using chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas and all touched the spots on their faces. Dogs, however, ignored the spots. Coren wrote that could mean the dogs lack self-awareness, but points out there also could be another reason: Sight is a much more important sense in primates than in dogs, which focus more on smell.
He said one researcher even conducted a (you’re gonna love this) “yellow-snow test,” in which he would wait for a dog to urinate in the snow, and then move the yellow snow elsewhere, among other sections of snow that other dogs had, well, yellowed. The result: The dog sniffed and urinated on all the other yellow snow sections but barely gave his own a passing sniff. The researcher concluded then that dogs have a sense of self-awareness.
Perhaps if a dog could smell itself through a mirror, it would notice its reflection more.
Staff Writer Bernie Delinski writes Just Ask, which runs Wednesdays in the TimesDaily. If you’ve got a question, e-mail it to bernie.delinski@TimesDaily.com, call him at 256-740-5739, fax it to 256-740-4717 or send it to Just Ask, c/o TimesDaily, P.O. Box 797, Florence, AL 35631.