We love watching dogs look at themselves in the mirror. Whether you viewed one of the countless viral videos of puppies barking at their own reflections, or you’ve seen your own canine gazing upon their counterpart through the looking glass, you’ve probably smiled at their adorable, silly, hilarious reactions.
But you may have also wondered what dogs are thinking when they see their reflections. Why does my dog stare in the mirror? Does my dog see their own reflection and recognize it? Do they think they see a completely different dog? Are dogs self-aware enough to figure out what they’re looking at?
We naturally have a lot of questions about how our furry friends see the world and themselves. Thankfully, there is some scientific research that can give us a few answers.
Does my dog think their reflection is another dog?
One of the most common things dog lovers believe when they see a pooch reacting to a mirror is that they must think they’re seeing another dog. That’s a reasonable assumption.
Dr. Tiffani Howell, Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe University in the School of Psychology and Public Health, co-authored several studies on canine cognition and perception, and even studies on whether dogs can use mirrors to solve problems. Her observations support the notion that dogs do, in fact, think they’re seeing other dogs in reflections, at least at first.
“Most puppies react in a very similar way when they see a mirror for the first time,” says Dr. Howell. “First, they get all excited and start barking or doing play-bows towards the ‘other dog.’ They also try to go around the side or back of the mirror to find the dog. Then, they get confused when the ‘other dog’ doesn’t react the way they would expect.”
Dr. Howell notes that after a few minutes, most puppies lose interest in mirrors. While they may have thought they were seeing another dog at first, they definitely can’t smell or hear another dog, so they stop paying attention fairly quickly. “Presumably, not having any olfactory or auditory cues from this other dog would also be confusing to them,” says Dr. Howell.
Can dogs understand how mirrors work?
Even if dogs don’t recognize themselves in mirrors, they’re still highly intelligent animals. So, you may wonder if dogs can understand how mirrors work at all. Can they, for example, see a reflection of a hidden treat and find where it is in the room?
Dr. Howell and fellow researchers conducted two different studies to figure out if dogs could use mirrors to solve problems. In the first study, they placed dogs in a room facing a mirror. Behind the dogs, they set up a window that led to another room. In the experiment, they had the dogs’ owners pop into the window with the dogs’ favorite toys while the dogs watched them in the mirror. The goal was to see if dogs would recognize their humans in the mirror, then turn around to face them.
Of the 40 dogs they tested, only two turned around to face their humans. In those two cases, researchers couldn’t definitively tell if the dogs were really understanding the mirror reflection.
However, in the second experiment, researchers took a different approach. They again placed dogs in a room with a mirror. Half of the dogs were allowed to see the mirror, and the other half, as a control group, had their mirror covered so they couldn’t see it at all. The researchers then hid treats in the room with half of the dogs able to watch in the mirror and the other half not able to watch.
The results? “The dogs who could see the food in the mirror were more likely to find it within the three minutes that they were allocated,” says Dr. Howell. Of the 22 dogs who could see the treats in the mirror, 17 found the food within three minutes. From the 22 dogs in the control group, only 9 found the treats.
This experiment seems to indicate that many dogs do, in fact, have some understanding of how mirrors work and can use them to solve problems.
“And don’t worry,” says Dr. Howell. “All of the dogs were given a treat before they left the lab, so none were disadvantaged just because they were in the control group.”
So, are dogs self-aware?
You may have heard that an animal’s ability to recognize his own reflection in the mirror is strongly related to his self-awareness. So if dogs don’t see themselves in the mirror, does that mean they’re not self-aware?
Not necessarily. Dr. Howell notes that this “mirror test” may not be appropriate for other animal species. Humans take a strong interest in the way they look, but dogs often use other senses more than sight, like their sense of smell, to explore the world.
So, would dogs be able to use an “olfactory mirror” that reflects scents instead of visual images to recognize themselves? Alexandra Horowitz, author and professor and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University, created an experiment to answer that very question.
For this study, Dr. Horowitz and researchers had dogs sniff three samples of urine. The first samples were the dogs’ own urine, the second samples were from other dogs, and the third were the dogs’ own urine mixed with an extra scent. In the experiment, the dogs sniffed other dogs’ urine and the samples of their urine with the extra scent for longer than they sniffed their own urine.
The study authors argue that this indicates dogs have a sense of self because they can tell when a scent belongs to them and when it doesn’t. They recognize their own smell similarly to how we know our own reflections by sight.
Should you let your dog look in the mirror?
Your dog might react to a mirror by investigating, barking, pawing, growling, or showing interest in whatever way they choose. It may make you wonder if your dog is feeling stressed out or if there are any downsides to letting your dog near a mirror, assuming they’re still interested in it after a few minutes.
Obviously, if there’s a chance your dog might knock a mirror over or break it, you should keep your pooch away. But as for causing your dog stress, there’s probably no reason for concern, especially when they realize there’s not really a dog on the other side.
Your dog probably will not worry about a mirror dog for long, if at all. Dr. Howell notes that a dog isn’t likely to fear a mirror unless he is trained to. “Naturally, if they learn to associate the mirror with a negative outcome, they could become fearful of the mirror in the same way that they could learn to be afraid of anything in that way,” says Dr. Howell.
If your dog does happen to show signs of distress around mirrors, it may be best to just keep him away. Otherwise, let them enjoy checking out their reflection, and take a cute, funny video to remember the good times.