In Love with the Scent of … Herself

Koala poses with her favorite toys
Photo by Deni Elliott


Can dogs be narcissistic? I never wondered about that until I got to know Koala.

Let’s back up a bit. To be a narcissist, a dog would have to have a concept of herself as an individual. Some people say that dogs don’t have “self-awareness,” the knowledge that they exist as unique individuals, separate from the environment and from other individuals.

Dr. Marc Bekoff, an ethologist and retired professor, thought that was absurd and set out to show that dogs do have self-awareness.

A common test for self-awareness is what’s often called the mirror test. The test subject is marked with a dot on the forehead, but he is not aware that the mark is there. The test measures whether, when he looks in the mirror, the test subject touches the dot on himself. If so, that indicates (supposedly) that he knows that the mirror reflection is an image of himself, and that (supposedly) shows self-awareness. Humans, even very young ones, generally pass this test. Dolphins do, too. But dogs often do not.

Now, I’ve known several dogs who would conduct complex communication with me or another human (or dog) via a mirror.  Those dogs absolutely knew that the reflections in the mirror were theirs, mine, Deni’s, whoever’s. Leaving that aside, the mirror test is a poor test of self-awareness for dogs because recognizing self or others by sight simply isn’t that important to them. (I could go off on a long rant about tests set up by and for humans based on human abilities and values that are then used to “prove” that nonhumans lack those abilities … but I won’t.)

What matters to dogs is smell.

So, back to Bekoff. He knew that the mirror test was a lousy instrument for testing dogs’ self-awareness, so he came up with a scent-based test: the yellow snow test. One Colorado winter morning, Bekoff let his dog out to do as dogs do. Then, when the dog wasn’t watching, Bekoff scooped some of the yellow snow and moved it to a location that had been visited by other dogs doing their morning business.

Then, Bekoff let his dog investigate. We all know that dogs love to check the pee-mail on walks. Bekoff’s dog was no different. Bekoff’s idea was that if a dog recognized his own scent, he’d pay less attention to it than to the scents of other dogs — dogs he wanted to learn about.

Bekoff was right. His dog passed the pee-sniff test. So did several other dogs Bekoff tested.

After learning about this experiment, I watched my own dogs’ behavior. Sure enough, they’d take a quick sniff at their own spots and move on, lingering only over other dogs’ leavings. Until Koala.

She reliably checks out her own stuff. She’ll investigate her spots later on, just as a less self-absorbed dog would check the news of other dogs. I’ve seen a few other dogs do this; Jana liked to revisit her prime spots on later walks. But Koala isn’t looking for news of other dogs, even if they’re talking about her.

No; Koala does something I have never seen another dog do: As soon as she’s done going, she turns and takes a long, approving whiff. If a fascination with oneself is the definition of a narcissist, I am afraid that Koala qualifies.

She’s not only focused on herself; she is quite interested in meeting people — and figuring out how she can get them to do things for her. That’s not entirely fair; Koala is an outstanding guide dog. She’s also silly, high-energy, and quite eager to meet and play with other dogs. But she may be the first canine narcissist I have ever met.

One thought on “In Love with the Scent of … Herself

  1. Thanks Pam. That was very interesting. I’m also wondering since they try to pee on everyone else’s spot they are saying “hey it’s all about me”, lol my guide doesn’t miss a spot. They are amazing animals and truly I could not have accomplished all I have without him.


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