Who Is That Puppy in the Mirror?

When puppies first see their own mirror reflection they think it is another dog.

Posted Oct 01, 2013

Source: Clipart division of Vital Imagery

Does a dog understand that the image that he sees in a mirror is really an image of himself? A while back I wrote an article dealing with this issue because psychologists think that the answer provides important data about the nature of a dog's consciousness and his sense of self (you can read that article here). Contrary to what we find when testing monkeys, the evidence shows that dogs quickly lose interest in mirror images, and after a while are quite blasé about them and even seem to be ignoring them.

In any event, regardless of the implications about higher thought processes that might come out of the fact that dogs tend to pay little attention to their own reflections, observations of puppies encountering a mirror for the first time suggest that their behaviors follow a regular pattern. It seems clear that dogs initially view their own reflection as being another dog, and often try to play or interact with that "dog". However their interactions with their image are necessarily limited and the dogs soon notice that the reflected dog does not smell like a real dog. Since scent is the major way in which dogs recognize and identify other individuals, the absence of a doggy smell from the reflection suggests to the dog that this image is not real and is therefore not all that interesting or important.

Following the publication of my article a number of people began to send me links and videos demonstrating the behavior of puppies on their first encounters with a mirror. I thought I would share a few of these with you since each is potentially an informative data set (as well as providing an often amusing bit of behavior to watch). The first is an eight week old Corgi who in a two-minute period goes through all of the stages from cautious approach, attempting to play with his reflection, and then finally ignoring it.


This next clip shows a 4 ½ month old Labrador Retriever who has clearly encountered his reflection before. He does stare at it momentarily but then moves on. Although his owner is trying to get him to interact with his reflected image, it doesn't seem to have much significance for the dog. After giving a few sniffs, and checking behind the mirror to see if a real dog is hiding there the Lab clearly feels that his reflection is not worth any more of his time.


However, after reviewing 14 videos where puppies interact with mirrors, I think that I am developing another, rather silly, hypothesis as to why dogs come to not only pay little attention to their own images, but actually sometimes seem to avoid their reflections in mirrors. A dramatic example of this can be seen in the following clip of another eight week old puppy.

After being bopped in the nose by his mirror image, it would not be surprising to find that this puppy will now, and in the future, avoid his own reflection. If you go back to the first clip, the one with the Corgi, you can see several places where he was also bopped in the nose during interactions with the mirror. In 10 out of the 14 videos that I looked at, there was at least one instance in which the puppy came at the surface of the mirror fast enough to receive a hard bang on his nose. I don't know if I am willing to stake my scientific reputation on an alternate guess about why dogs respond the way they do to their reflection in mirrors, however I will offer it to you just for fun. Could it be the case that dogs don't pay much attention to, or even sometimes seem to avoid, their reflections in mirrors simply because at some point in their life history that reflection has banged them in the snout when they were just innocently trying to play with it?

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted, reposted without permission