I find it hard to believe that there are still people who dismiss the fact that dogs are self-aware. Self-awareness is simply the ability to recognize oneself as separate from other individuals and from your environment. Not only do I believe that dogs are self-aware, I go a step further and say that some dogs (yes, I mean you, Jana) are not only self-aware but self-absorbed.
Psychologists and other scientists point to dogs’ disappointing performance on the “mirror test” as “evidence” that dogs are not self-aware. This test, which humans and many primates (and dolphins) pass, basically involves putting a mark on the face of the test subject. If the test subject, when looking in a mirror, reaches up to touch or try to remove the spot — on himself or herself, not on the mirror image — this shows self-awareness. The test subject recognizes himself or herself as different from the mirror image.
Some dogs do pass the mirror test. Before I even knew about the mirror test, as a newbie trainer back in 2002, I was training a service-dog puppy named Yasu. Yasu, a petite platinum blonde, seized every possible opportunity to look in a mirror. She would have aced the mirror test. And her interest in mirrors went beyond mere recognition of herself. She gazed adoringly at her reflection. She sought out mirrors. In the supermarket, she would “up” on the lettuce bin to gaze admiringly at her image in the mirror that was angled above the produce. It was funny — and embarrassing.
But, Yasu aside, many dogs don’t do so well on the mirror test. So what? The test looks at something that is irrelevant to most dogs. For most dogs, self-awareness is not primarily about appearance. Scent is what matters in a dog world.
Ethologist Marc Bekoff demonstrated dogs’ self-awareness with his yellow snow experiments. He moved patches of snow that the dogs he was studying had marked (thus turning it yellow … use your imagination) and studied their reactions. They spent far more time sniffing and investigating yellow snow patches that had been created by other dogs than sniffing their own. Bekoff had moved all of the patches of yellow snow from where the dogs had initially marked, so the “sniffer” dogs were not responding to specific locations. Bekoff’s reading of the study was that the dogs knew their own scent, quickly determined that they would not learn anything interesting about other dogs by sniffing their own marks, and moved on.
So, dogs do show self-awareness, if tested using criteria that actually matter to dogs.
Several years after I worked with Yasu, I took a seminar with Bekoff while doing my master’s degree at Bergin U. I learned about the self-awareness debate and the yellow snow. I never asked Bekoff about it, but I’ve wondered what Yasu’s love of her own image meant.
Then, along came Jana and the question of self-absorption. Jana turns the yellow snow experiment on its head.
On walks, she seeks out and spends considerably more time sniffing her own, um, leavings. Before anyone starts yelling about what a horrible person I am for not picking up her poop, I would like to point out that we walk in wilderness, in Montana, where hundreds of animals, including deer, elk, moose, fox, coyote, wolf, bear and mountain lion, wild turkeys, and an unknown number of local dogs all walk regularly. No one picks up anything, and there is a smorgasbord of scents for the dogs to investigate.
Jana and I frequently walk the same loop. Despite the markings of all the other animals, on every walk, she stops at the same spots — her spots. The more we walk the loop, the more Jana deposits in the woods along the way — and the more stops we make. She is still sniffing at spots she marked a couple of weeks ago. There is nothing visible left, but she checks out her spots anyhow.
It’s not simply that she’s enjoying the scent. If so, she’d roll in it, as she does with many things, such as dead wildlife, that, to her, have delectable scents. Nor does she (thank goodness!) grab a snack, as she often does with horse droppings. She sniffs. Long and thoroughly. From every angle.
I’ve decided that she thinks her scent is so hot that she’s convinced that other dogs must also think so — and that, therefore, they will leave messages for her. Her own little local Facebook. Extreme doggy self-absorption.
While Jana does admire herself in mirrors occasionally, her self-awareness — and self-absorption — is all about her own heavenly scent.