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.


Apologies to Jana

I owe Jana an apology.

I’m reading a wonderful book (go get it right now!), Beyond Words by Carl Safina. A review will be posted … once I finish the book. I’ve finished the sections on elephants, wolves, and, best of all, dogs. Orcas are up next.

He takes great delight in lampooning several ludicrous studies that purport to prove humans’ superiority in matters of self-awareness and “theory of mind.” In reading Safina’s analysis of the mirror test, I realized that I got it all wrong. His explanation is brilliant — and so obvious.

The mirror test has been used for decades to establish, so some researchers say, whether an animal has self-awareness. This is variously defined as recognizing that you exist as an individual separate from other individuals (and your environment) to, more absurdly, the definition put forth by the creator of the test and quoted in Safina’s book: “Self-awareness provides the ability to contemplate the past, to project into the future, and to speculate on what others are thinking.” Other definitions include the “capacity for introspection.” I’m not sure how recognizing yourself in the mirror reveals a capacity for introspection or an ability to project into the future, but the folks who wrote those definitions did not explain that detail.

The test involves surreptitiously putting some sort of mark on the test subject’s forehead. When the person (whether human, ape, dolphin, dog, etc.) looks in the mirror, if the person touches or tries to remove the mark, he or she is recognizing that the reflection is not some other creature but an image of himself or herself. I understand that. What Safina points out, though, is that that says nothing at all about self-awareness. What it reveals is an understanding of how reflection works. Seems pretty obvious, no?

He goes on to talk about what self-awareness really means — being aware that you, yourself, are separate from other “selves” and from the environment. He says that a creature that does not recognize this would assume that the reflection was itself since it would not differentiate its own “self” from anything else, but that would also make it impossible to move, eat, find a mate, or do much of anything, like survive. He provides wonderful examples of all kinds of non-humans showing exquisite understanding of their environments and other beings that populate those environments.

I’ll leave his discussion of theory of mind for another post.

So, what does all of this have to do with Jana? In a long-ago post, I described Jana’s experience with the mirror test, and I described her as not only self-aware but also as self-absorbed. While this might be true, I did not give her enough credit. You see, Safina points out that what some non-humans (and who knows, maybe some toddlers as well) do when they first encounter mirrors and do not (yet) understand reflection is that they try to engage with or attack the other being in the mirror. While many psychologists will say that this means that they are not self-aware, Safina makes the (again obvious) point that it absolutely shows self-awareness. Trying to play with or attack another being requires that understanding that you and he are not the same creature!

So. Jana. When Jana was a puppy, we had an older dog, Timo, who resented the puppy and did not play with her. My mom had two adult dogs, Buddy and Daisy, who also were not keen on playing with this relatively large, high-energy puppy. But at my mom’s apartment, Jana made a wonderful discovery: a puppy who kept play-bowing and acting friendly and excited to see her. Jana could not understand why this other puppy never moved beyond the play bow, however. Within a few weeks, Jana did recognize that the puppy in the mirror was actually her, and she stopped trying to get the puppy to play. I used to tell this story and say it meant that little Jana didn’t yet have self-awareness. How wrong I was!

Thanks, Dr. Safina, for pointing out that of course my brilliant puppy knew that she was a distinct individual — an individual who simply wanted a playmate.


She’s So Vain … She Probably Thinks This Blog Is About Her!

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.

Who's the fairest dog of all?

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.