Dogs, Mirrors, and Purple Fuzz: Did Honey Know That's Honey?

We must be very careful when claiming some animals don't have a sense of self.

Posted Jan 16, 2017

Many people are interested in the question of whether or not nonhuman animals (animals) have some sense of self. I use the phrase "some sense of self" because people don't necessarily agree what the terms "self-recognition" and "self-awareness" really mean. 

In an essay called "Reflections on animal selves," Cornell University biologist Paul Sherman and I wrote,

"Is self-cognizance a uniquely human attribute, or do other animals also have a sense of self? Although there is considerable interest in this question, answers remain elusive. Progress has been stymied by misunderstandings in terminology, a focus on a narrow range of species, and controversies over key concepts, experimental paradigms and interpretations of data. Here, we propose a new conceptual and terminological framework, emphasizing that degrees of self-cognizance differ among animals because of the cognitive demands that their species-specific social structures and life-history characteristics have placed upon them over evolutionary time. We suggest that the self-cognizance of an organism falls at a point on a continuum of social complexity and conscious involvement."

Our paper is available here. We used the phrase "self cognizance" to call attention to the different perspective for which we were arguing. In essence, "self-cognizance" is used as an umbrella term to cover the continuum from "self-referencing" to "self-awareness" to "self-consciousness." Some of what Dr. Sherman and I were writing about came from an earlier essay called "Consciousness and Self in Animals: Some Reflections," in which I wrote:

In this essay I argue that many nonhuman animal beings are conscious and have some sense of self. Rather than ask whether they are conscious, I adopt an evolutionary perspective and ask why consciousness and a sense of self evolved—what are they good for? Comparative studies of animal cognition, ethological investigations that explore what it is like to be a certain animal, are useful for answering this question. Charles Darwin argued that the differences in cognitive abilities and emotions among animals are differences in degree rather than differences in kind, and his view cautions against the unyielding claim that humans, and perhaps other great apes and cetaceans, are the only species in which a sense of self-awareness has evolved. I conclude that there are degrees of consciousness and self among animals and that it is likely that no animal has the same highly developed sense of self as that displayed by most humans. Many animals have a sense of “body-ness” or “mine-ness” but not a sense of “I-ness.” Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity, together with empirical data (“science sense”) and common sense, will help us learn more about consciousness and self in animals. Answers to challenging questions about animal self-awareness have wide-ranging significance, because they are often used as the litmus test for determining and defending the sorts of treatments to which animals can be morally subjected.

Do dogs recognize themselves? Dogs, “yellow snow,” and mirrors

From time to time I think about questions about animals' sense of self, because some people still claim that only certain animals possess this capacity and because of my interest in what dogs know about themselves (for more information on this topic please see "Do Animals Know Who they Are?").

The short and correct answer to questions of whether dogs recognize themselves or are self-aware is that we just really don’t know. I conducted what has come to be called “the yellow snow study” when I walked my dog companion Jethro along the Boulder Creek trail along Boulder Creek, just outside city limits. To study the role of urine in eliciting urinating and marking I moved urine-saturated snow (‘yellow snow’) from place-to-place during five winters to compare the responses of Jethro to his own and others’ urine. When people saw me do this they tended to avoid me and shake their head from side-to-side, clearly questioning my sanity. You can easily don an ethologist’s hat and repeat this experiment and risk being called weird.

I learned that Jethro spent less time sniffing his own urine than that of other males or females, and that while his interest in his own urine waned with time it remained relatively constant for other individuals’ urine. Jethro infrequently urinated over or sniffed and then immediately urinated over his own urine. He marked over the urine of other males more frequently than he marked over females’ urine. I concluded that Jethro clearly had some sense of “self”, a sense of “mine-ness” but not necessarily of “I-ness” In her book, Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, Dr. Horowitz writes about the results of a more systematic study of self-recognition with dogs in her cognition laboratory. She notes that the dogs “peed only on other dogs’ containers, not their own. They saw themselves." (page 28)

Neither Dr. Horowitz nor I are sure what these studies tell us about self-awareness, but they do say something about identity.

Does Honey know who Honey is? The importance of purple fuzzy socks

Citizen science comes into the picture concerning self-awareness in dogs. When I was talking to a group of students at a class in January 2017, Arianna Schlumbohm told a story about her dog, Honey.

"One day a few years ago, Honey had been lying with me on my bed. I was wearing these truly awful purple fuzzy socks, and she got some fuzz on her forehead at some point. It was adorable. After a little bit of this, she caught a glance of herself in my mirror and almost immediately reacted. She batted at the fuzz with her front paws until it caught, then sat on my stomach until I pulled the fuzz off her paw. Then she went back to the foot of the bed for a few more hours. Honey was really upset, but calmed down as soon as she saw the purple was off. I always just thought of it as a cute, dopey dog story, but I really hope that it will help out your research!"

Arianna’s story is the best I’ve heard about a dog paying attention to something on their forehead after seeing it in a mirror. Honey hadn’t been observed paying any attention to herself in the mirror previously. This observation comes very close to the more formal “red dot” studies that have been done on non-human primates, dolphins, orcas, elephants, birds, and fish in which a red dot is placed on their forehead or on an area of their body without them knowing it, a mark they cannot see without using the mirror. Self-directed movements are interpreted as indicating some form of self-recognition. This procedure is called the “mirror test” and depends on the animals using visual, rather than olfactory or auditory cues, to make assessments of who's in the mirror. 

Concerning dogs and mirrors, in an essay by researchers Megumi Fuzuzawa and Ayano Hasha called “Can we estimate dogs’ recognition of objects in mirrors from their behavior and response time?” the researchers show that dogs can learn to use mirrors to locate food without humans helping them.

Is that me looking at me in the mirror? The results of studies of self-recognition are a mixed bag

All in all, the results of these studies of self-recognition are a mixed bag, and the most important points are that while some, often only one individual, touches the dot, not all individuals of a species show these self-directed movements. Also, just because some animals don’t, this does not mean they don’t have some sense of self. For example, decades ago, Michael Fox and I tried to do the “mirror test’ on dogs and wolves and none showed any interest in the spot on their forehead. As I wrote above, the “yellow snow” test shows that a sense of self may be related to olfactory rather than visual cues. There still is a lot of work to be done, but there is no reason at all to think that dogs do not have some sense of self. A list of some of the animals who have passed the mirror test along with videos can be seen here.

The taxonomy of self in animals: I hope that Adrianna's observations of Honey motivate people to look for similar behavior in their dogs and for researchers to develop more formal tests that can be used on a wide variety of animals who rely on different sensory modalities. Others have shared similar stories with me about their dogs, and there still is so much more to learn about whether dogs and other animals know "that's me," or what they really know about themselves, using cues when they stare into a mirror, sniff something, or hear a sound. How exciting it will be to learn about the taxonomy of self in nonhuman animals. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018.