Dogs certainly don’t have the same reaction to their reflection as we humans do. Some will simply ignore the reflections, whereas others may respond playfully or aggressively towards it. All of this begs the question: can dogs see themselves in a mirror? And this leads onto the more existential question of: are dogs self-aware? Obviously, we can’t enter the mind of a dog, so we cannot be certain of exactly what they are thinking and feeling. But scientists and dog lovers have observed canines to see if they can answer these interesting questions.
Do Dogs Understand Mirrors?
When you bring a new puppy home and they spy a mirror for the first time, you may observe them acting aggressively, cowering in fear, or trying to play with it. This strongly suggests that while they can see the image just fine, they cannot recognize it as themselves. Instead, they see it as another dog and they react in the way they normally would towards this perceived intruder.
Unlike younger dogs, it seems that older pooches react completely differently to seeing their own reflection. While they may catch it from time to time, they usually ignore it entirely like they aren’t seeing anything. You may notice them turning their head as if to look at something else, not making eye contact, or simply reacting with complete disinterest.
So, it does appear that dogs can see themselves, but they do not recognize it as themselves. Another possible conclusion about dogs and mirrors is that they do recognize themselves, but they don’t have the same level of vanity as us primates.
Another possible conclusion that can be drawn is that dogs are not the same type of visual creatures as apes and humans. They tend to explore the world using their nose, so they are more likely to recognize their own scent rather than their own reflection. After all, this is how dogs mark their territory.
Are Dogs Self Aware?
When humans look into a mirror, we immediately recognize our own reflections, but this is learned when we are babies between 18 and 24 months old. While we don’t really treat it as anything special when we stroll past our own reflection, psychologists treat this level of self-awareness as a highly developed parts of our consciousness. Experiments have been conducted on chimps to show that they can also recognize themselves in the mirror after repeated exposure. However, with animals like cats and dogs looking in a mirror, either treat this image as another animal or they ignore it entirely, which suggests that they don’t have the level of self-awareness to identify it as themselves. Other researchers think that it just means that they are not concerned with their own reflection as their sense of sight is less important than some of their other senses.
Training Your Dog to Understand a Mirror
It may be obvious that you can’t specifically train your dog to recognize their own reflection in the mirror. However, you can undertake a bit of a dog mirror test to see if they notice anything at all. You just need to find a colored sticker or something else bright that you affix to your pooch. You should choose a spot at the front of their body such as their chest, front legs, or even their head. Ideally, they shouldn’t notice that it is there is something on their body. Otherwise, they are likely to try and paw it off and the experiment is not going to work.
Once the colored dot is on your dog, now is the time to try and draw them towards the mirror. You may need to use a dog treat to bring them to the mirror or hold them in place. When they are looking in their own direction, see if the colored dot captures their attention. If they notice it, they may start trying to get rid of it. However, if you can’t seem to get them to pay any notice to the dot, there is every chance that they cannot see anything in the mirror.
Safety Tips If Your Dog Recognizes Their Reflection
If your dog or puppy does see their own reflection, you may want to take some steps to ensure their safety. First of all, you should keep a close eye on your pooch to see how they respond to it. Be wary if your dog seems to react in an overly aggressive manner. If this happens on a regular basis, it can contribute to more aggressive behavior in the household. If possible, try and keep your dog out of rooms with long mirrors where they are likely to spy themselves. This could also be a forewarning that your dog is going to react aggressively to other dogs in general, so this could be a signal that you need to take them in for some behavioral therapy to sort out the issue sooner rather than later.
Another issue may arise if your dog gets a little too playful with their reflection, which could result in them charging into the mirror and doing themselves some sort of damage. This could lead to an injury due to the mirror being knocked over, so be especially careful with looking glasses that are in precarious positions. You may need to shut your dog out of this room, cover up the mirror, or move it to a place where it is less likely to get knocked over.
Many puppies and some older dogs can see themselves in the mirror, but there is no certainty that they recognize it as themselves. We can’t be entirely certain whether or not they have this level of self-awareness, but many researchers think that this is only reserved for human beings and other creatures like chimps. And while it can be fun to watch your dog reacting to their own reflection, you need to make sure that they do so in a way that is safe.
- Wailani Sung, MS, PhD, DVM, DACVB, Are Dogs Self-Aware?, PetMD
- Dr. Marty Becker DVM, What Do Animals See in the Mirror?, VetStreet