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Self-consciousness: Beyond the looking-glass and what dogs found there

Dogs (and probably many other animals) have a conscience too!

That man’s best friend has a conscience is what every owner would be willing to bet, without even thinking about it for a moment. This means that dogs have self-consciousness. But the problem in science is that ideas and assumptions must be demonstrated. It is not enough for someone to have an inkling of something for it to be considered a scientific fact. Self-awareness, or self-consciousness, has been studied mainly by examining the responses of animals and children to their reflection in the mirror.

The ultimate proof of possession of a consciousness of self, of one’s body and one’s own identity, is evaluated based on the individual’s ability to use his own reflection to notice and touch a mark (usually a red dot) applied under anaesthesia or during a period of distraction on the face, head, or other parts of the body. This test is known as the “mirror test” and many have observed experiments with children or chimpanzees that easily identify themselves in the mirror and repeatedly touch the mark placed by the investigator on their body.

The basis of the test is that the subject who understands the concept of “self” and “the other” is able to distinguish between the two entities and, therefore, to recognize himself or herself in the reflection. The most interesting result arising from the confirmation of a consciousness of self is that, based on these results, other behavioral traits may be deduced such as, for example, empathy.

In fact, the ability to differentiate oneself from others is often considered a prerequisite for understanding that someone else may be happy or sad, even if the viewer is not.

“When I became interested in this aspect of ethology I went through the scientific literature and I discovered that, however, the ability to recognize their own image in the mirror is a skill extremely rare in the animal kingdom,” Roberto Cazzolla Gatti said.

Until now, only humans and great apes (gorillas excluded), a single Asian elephant, some dolphins, Eurasian magpies, and some ants have passed the test of mirror self-recognition (MSR). A wide range of species has been observed to fail the test, including several species of monkeys, giant pandas, sea lions, birds, and dogs.

Dogs, in particular, show no interest in looking in the mirror, but usually sniff or urinate around it. Dogs and wolves, like dolphins, show a high level of cognitive complexity, but previous attempts to demonstrate the self-recognition of these animals have been inconclusive.

“I believed that because dogs are much less sensitive to visual stimuli with respect to what, for example, humans and many apes are, it is likely that the failure of this and of other species in the mirror test is mainly due to the sensory modality chosen by the investigator to test the self-awareness and not, necessarily, to the absence of this latter,” Roberto Cazzolla Gatti continued.

Attempts to verify this idea have been made before, but most of them were only observational, lacked empirical evidence, or had been carried out only with a single individual and not repeated systematically with other dogs of different sex and age (for example Marc Bekoff in 2001 used a “yellow snow test” to measure how long his dog was sniffing his scent of urine and those of the other dogs in the area). Therefore, the final test of self-recognition in a species as phylogenetically distant from apes (thus with different sensory modalities and communication behavior) as the dog was not obtained.

“So I imagined a new test able to move beyond the mirror version and I called it the sniff test of self-recognition (STSR)”, the researcher said.

“I demonstrated that even when applying it to multiple individuals living in groups and with different ages and sexes, this test provides significant evidence of self-awareness in dogs and can play a crucial role in showing that this capacity is not a specific feature of only great apes, humans, and a few other animals, but it depends on the way in which researchers try to verify it.”

This research was conducted with a test performed on 4 dogs, all strays grown in semi-freedom. Dr. Gatti collected urine samples from each dog and divided and stored them in containers labeled to each dog. Then he submitted the animals to the sniff test of self-recognition. The tests were repeated four times a year, at the beginning of each season. This test is nothing more than a modified version of the mirror test, carried out to check the sense of smell, and not the sight, as the main way to determine self-awareness.

“Then I placed within a fence 5 urine samples containing the scent of each of the four dogs and a “blank sample”, filled only with cotton wool odorless,” Dr. Gatti said.

The containers were then opened and each dog was individually introduced to the inside of the cage and allowed to freely move for 5 minutes. The time taken by each dog to sniff each sample was recorded.

The result was surprising: all dogs devoted more time to smell the urine samples of the others rather than their own, and this behavior confirmed the hypothesis that dogs seem to know their own smell exactly, they are less interested in their own, and they are therefore self-aware.

In addition, this study shows a correlation between the age of the individual dogs and the time spent to sniff the urine samples, a result that strongly supports the idea that self-awareness increases with age, as demonstrated in other species, such as chimpanzees and humans.

The innovative approach to test the self-awareness with a smell test highlights the need to shift the paradigm of the anthropocentric idea of consciousness to a species-specific perspective. We would never expect that a mole or a bat can recognize themselves in a mirror, but now we have strong empirical evidence to suggest that if species other than primates are tested using chemical or auditory perception, we could get really unexpected results.

From now on, according to the results of this study, it will be more difficult to establish, watching our dog, whether in that moment we are thinking about him or he is thinking about us. Maybe both. It will be, however, easier to recognize that the age of empathy that was anticipated by the great ethologist Frans de Waal has finally arrived.

Meanwhile top cat scientists are still trying to determine if we are intelligent or not…

cat on a rumba


Cazzolla Gatti, R. (2015). Self-consciousness: beyond the looking-glass and what dogs found there Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/03949370.2015.1102777

2 responses

  1. Candice Coleman

    If there is one thing I learned in my psychology class it is that a theory must be tested over and over again with similar results to be considered a fact. This article contains different arguments when it comes to whether or not a dog has a conscience. Before reading the article I considered the question of a dog being self-conscious. I did not think dogs had a conscience. I did know that dogs get upset when they are yelled but that relates to the loudness of a person’s voice and not consciousness. The MSR test would prove my theory of doggie self-consciousness but Roberto Gatti made the point that for an animal “the ability to recognize their own image in the mirror is a skill extremely rare.” Gatti’s new testing system was able to show that dogs are self-aware because they know their own scent. I am still not sure if I believe dogs have a conscience but this article has given me a lot to think about.


    December 10, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    • Well now you’re getting into the real heart of the problem, does consciousness require self awareness or are does self awareness require consciousness. Because if consciousness first requires self awareness, then hypothetically you can have self awareness without actual consciousness, but if having consciousness is a requirement for self awareness, then just proving self awareness would be sufficient.

      Personally, without getting too metaphysical I think that we aren’t special and everything has to have it’s own type of consciousness, but it probably isn’t like our own. For example we’ve just started realizing that trees talk to each other and the root systems look an awful lot like our own neuronal pathways, just not as specialized and most likely not nearly as advanced..

      But then again trees live for hundreds of years so even if it took minutes or days for a tree to have a single “thought” like we do then it would still be just as comparable to our own thoughts, just not as quick.

      I don’t know, just food for thought I guess.


      December 10, 2015 at 6:33 pm

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