Sunday, November 27, 2016
Apparently, Dogs Pass The Mirror Self-Recognition Test After All, As Long As It's A Smell-Based Mirror
The "Mirror Test" is a well-known way to show which animals have self-awareness and self-recognition. The basic idea is that you take an animal - say, an elephant - and, without them knowing, put a dab of red paint on their forehead. Then have the animal look at itself in a mirror. If they see the red paint and immediately focus on the red paint and maybe reach up with their trunk to touch it, then you know that they have an understanding of "self." i.e., "That guy in the mirror is me and why the heck is there red paint on my face?"
Elephants and dolphins and gorillas and chimps and bonobos and orangutans have this understanding of "self."
But dogs do not. At least, not in the conventional way. Put something outlandish on a dog's face and have him look in the mirror, he will be indifferent. A dog clearly does not realize that the image in a mirror is "him."
Except maybe we've got it all wrong.
A mirror is a visual device. Dogs are olfactory oriented. The major part of their world is perceived with their sense of smell.
So what if we could create a olfactory mirror?
I recently started reading "Being A Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell" by Alexandra Horowitz. (She also wrote "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know." )
In this book, she quickly asks this obvious question, suggesting that we foolishly judge dogs in a visual way, when they are mostly focused on the sense of smell.
So she and her colleagues devised a "mirror" that was smell-based instead of vision-based.
The basic idea was to use dog urine as a way to judge how a dog perceived itself as opposed to other dogs. The reason is that urine is one of the richest sources of information available to a dog. (Yes, your urine, too!) A sniff of urine can tell a dog an astonishing amount of information about whoever left it. What kind of animal, the sex of the animal, how long ago the animal left the urine, whether the animal was stressed or fearful or happy, whether the animal was pregnant or sick or hungry or... The list is endless.
And one of the basic ways a dog interacts with its environment is to add a bit of its own urine to the environment. When urine is added to previous urine, that previous urine is considered "marked" by the new additional urine. The result is that there are, very broadly, three categories of urine out there when viewed from the point of view of a dog. Urine that belongs exclusively to a particular dog. Urine that has been "marked" (added to) by another dog. And, third, any combination of urine that contains urine from the dog who is investigating.
In other words, the researchers wanted to know if a dog can recognize its own urine. And if so, could it recognize and be aware of when its own urine is marked by another dog, i.e., a form of looking into a mirror and discovering red paint on its face?
So the researchers collected urine from a wide range of dogs. They also collected urine that had been added to ("marked") by other dogs. Then, with careful controls, they allowed the dogs to "discover" the different urine combinations.
There were three main reactions.
1) When a dog sniffed its own urine, it was not interested at all.
2) When a dog sniffed another dog's urine, it was quite interested and spent a lot of time investigating.
(These first two concepts say a great deal about self-awareness. But read on...)
3) When a dog sniffed its own urine that had been "marked" (added to) by another dog's urine, the dog found it very interesting. (Red paint on your forehead.)
The scientists were, of course, quite careful in their controls. Scientists always take great pains to not jump to false conclusions.
Nevertheless, the experiment seems very much like it demonstrates self-awareness on the part of dogs.
No doubt, more research will be coming. But it looks like dogs do pass the mirror test as long as the test is based on smell instead of vision.