Ever put your pup in front of a mirror? Reactions of a dog in front of a mirror can range from just ignoring it to a full-on crazy barkfest. Studies show that unlike chimpanzees or even dolphins, dogs don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. To them, it’s just a shape in the mirror, which could be another dog. So how do dogs recognize themselves? Well, a new study from Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist at Barnard College proposes a theory that dogs recognize themselves through scents rather than sight.
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A dog’s nose has 300 million olfactory receptors (used to identify smells), compared to the measly 6 million that humans have. And proportionally, the part of a dog’s brain that is dedicated to identifying smells is 40 times bigger than ours. So it makes sense that a dog’s nose is the equivalent of our eyes.
Dr. Horowitz says that she had flirted with the idea of an “olfactory mirror” in an article from the New York Times. Although the idea seems terrifying to us (can you imagine what that would look like at the gym?!), to a doggo it’s the perfect way to identify themselves. In Dr. Horowitz’ study, she gave the dogs three options to choose from, a dish with their own urine, a dish with a different dog’s urine, and the dog’s own urine mixed with another scent. She found in the experiment that the dogs didn’t pay much attention to their own urine, were mildly interested in the other dog’s urine, and most interested in the last sample.
Now these findings could mean a few things, but Dr. Horowitz hypothesizes that dogs do recognize their own scents, but are more interested if it’s been altered. One theory is that dogs use their urine to mark their territory, so if another dog uses the same spot, it’s almost like an olfactory battle for dominance. Although it’s not a direct parallel to the mirror test that is usually used to determine self-awareness in animals, it does pose some interesting questions.
But there are still some skeptics, including Gordon Gallup, the scientist who came up with the mirror test. In this test, animals were placed in front of a mirror and observed to see if they realized it was themselves. Chimpanzees were able to recognize themselves, even using the mirror to see places that they couldn’t normally, like the inside of their mouths. They also used the mirror to get rid of smudges on their faces if they saw one in the mirror. Gallup reasons that just because the dogs were able to identify different scents doesn’t mean that they recognized themselves in the smells. Since the mirror test relies on visual input and behavioral gestures that show self-awareness (like the chimps cleaning their own faces), it’s hard to tell whether a dog can actually use this “olfactory mirror” like other animals do.
Still, dog scents and smells are still an important part of understanding pup behavior. Another researcher by the name of Marc Bekoff, who is a biologist and animal behavior specialist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, conducted a similar experiment. During winter, he moved his dog’s urine (read: yellow snow) to different areas to see if his dog recognized the smell. His findings were very similar to Dr. Horowitz’, with his dog, Jethro, being more interested in urine from other dogs rather than his own, and urinating over other dogs’ yellow snow rather than his own.
So can dogs recognize different scents, including their own? Sounds like the jury might still be out. What do you think? Leave us a comment below!