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Dogs’ image of self

Following on my post about whether or not dogs have an image of self, Marji of For the Pit Bulls makes a great post about the problems of the “mirror test” and makes an excellent point about what senses a species uses. The mirror test, she points out, is biased in favor of species like humans that use vision as their primary sense. Dogs use smell.

Her post called to mind the behavior my dogs exhibit when we take their collars off after they’ve been wearing them a while. Once a dog here is trained enough that we can get them in the house from outside, on and off the furniture on demand, and interrupt any behaviors (like chasing cats) that are less than desirable by voice command rather than gently taking a collar to redirect the dog to a more appropriate activity, and once they’ve been microchipped, they live collar-free most of the time. Collars go on to leave the house, and come back off when we return.

Anyway, any time I have removed collars, the dogs will preferentially show a deep fascination for sniffing their own collars over the collars worn by another dog. It’s the same kind of fascinated Big Sniff that I get after coming back from visiting other dogs: nose pressed tight against the material, audible snuffs and sniffs, a whole-body sniffing experience. They don’t do it with the collars that the other household dogs wear, only with their own. This definitely suggests to me that Marji is right on the money, and if there’s a “smell mirror” then we might in fact find that dogs recognize themselves in it. But the concept of a “smell mirror” is so alien to people that we’d have trouble even designing the experiments we have used on, say, chimps, where we change the animal’s appearance with a small dot of cosmetics to see if they notice and touch themselves at the altered point.

Something fascinating to think about, anyway.

5 thoughts on “Dogs’ image of self

  1. Should have seen the double take that Coal got from Xita when he came back from getting bathed. It was a sort of “Oh hi Co…, who the heck are you? oh! Coal” complete with a stop mid-stride as Coal passed perpendicular to her (and his scent reached her), followed by a deep sniff of Coal’s coat, then a sort of conciliatory wag as recognition clicked in.

    It was the same sort of response a human might give another human who has drastically changed her hair color.

  2. I tend to wash the dog collars when I wash the dogs. It seems like putting back on a dirty shirt after getting out of the shower. The first 20 minutes after a bath are for zoomies. The next 20 minutes are for licking. Then there’s the who are you? sniffing. When I put back on their clean collars there’s another round of who are you? sniffing.

  3. i always wondered why puppy was so very enthusiastic about sniffing and nudging his collar whenever i took it off him. it seemed to me like he was trying to get me to put it back on him the way he’d shove his head under it and lean against it. now i’m curious and i’m gonna have to go take both dogs collars off at the same time and see what they do.

  4. My dogs do the same thing. Mina has no interest in Celeste’s collar and vice versa. I always make a point to let them sniff their own collar when I take it off. They are entranced by it, and I do have to wonder if they smell it and go “yep, that’s me” and smell another collar and “nope, not me.”

    I think Mark Bekoff has done some self-recognition studies in dogs using urine. I should try and find those.

  5. one wonders how wolves react to the mirror test

    the thousands of years of human intervention in the breeding of dogs causes one to wonder if we also selected for a less self oriented canine/ to be more pack group oriented as vs self (not sure if explaining thoughts properly)

    the dismissal of dogs on pass/ not pass the mirror test can’t be stated as fact till wolves are tested to remove all doubt about human intervention in dog genetics

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