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Do Dogs Understand How Mirrors Work? Dog Behavior Explained

Gregory Iacono

By Gregory Iacono

Puppy in mirror

The average dog is intelligent and can learn and remember many things. Most dogs learn commands and tricks effortlessly and can easily pick their owner out of a crowd. Dogs can even tell when you’re unhappy or upset. As bright as they are, do dogs understand how a mirror works? No, dogs do not recognize themselves in mirrors or know how they work.

Many puppies have a distinct fear of mirrors because they see “another dog” in the reflection. Even adult dogs don’t realize the handsome beast staring back at them in the mirror is their own furry face. Dogs lack self-awareness, at least as far as mirrors are concerned. If you’re interested in how dogs perceive mirrors and themselves, we have fascinating information, facts, and figures below!

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Do Dogs Possess Self-Awareness?

Knowing that your dog doesn’t recognize itself in the mirror, you might ask if dogs have any self-awareness. Research published by the AKC says they do.1 It showed that dogs recognize themselves and other dogs more through smell than sight. Specific tests have been devised to test dogs following this hypothesis using dog urine, including their own, urine from other dogs, and foreign scents like eucalyptus. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, a researcher at Tomsk State University in Russia, tested dozens of dogs using the same parameters.

The tests showed that dogs recognized their urine quickly, recognized the urine from other dogs, and recognized when their urine had been tampered with using an additional scent. The conclusion was that dogs identify themselves and other dogs more with their sense of smell than their sense of sight. In other words, on a certain level, dogs seem self-aware as they know when something is “theirs,” including their urine.

White bulldog looking at himself in the mirror
Image Credit: PokoFoto, Shutterstock

Why Don’t Most Dogs Stare at the Mirror for Hours?

You would think that if it thought there was another dog in the mirror, your dog would spend hours “playing,” or at least staring at a mirror. After all, have you ever taken your dog to a dog park and tried to pry them away from their dog buddies when it was time to leave?

So why will most dogs quickly lose interest in the “other” dog they see, and some dogs will ignore their reflection altogether? The reason is simple; the “other” dog has no scent and reacts very differently than a genuine 2nd dog would respond. Without those two factors, most dogs will quickly become bored and look for something better to do.

Do Some Dogs Recognize Themselves in a Mirror?

Although there have been reports of dogs that could recognize their reflection, as of this writing, no dog has ever been proven to understand that its reflection was its own face. Some dogs might have some understanding of how mirrors work, especially if they are exposed to similar circumstances using mirrors, like a floor-length mirror in your bedroom. However, scientists say that all they see is another dog.

Is the Mirror Test Accurate with Dogs?

Some researchers believe that the mirror test, which has been used for decades, might be flawed. Some even argue that the mirror test is biased towards humans because some species, like dogs, recognize themselves using other senses, not just sight.

Primatologist Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, had this to say about the mirror test in a recent interview with Science of Us; “Think about it: Why should a mirror mean anything to most animals?” He believes that many animals that fail the mirror test are indeed self-aware but on a level that humans might not even recognize.

Why Does a Dog Look in the Mirror and Cry?

If you’ve seen a dog, usually a puppy, look in a mirror and cry, you might be confused by the reaction. The reflection, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t have a scent and doesn’t react correctly. For those two reasons, a puppy might become sad and cry because the play pal it hoped was there to play with isn’t acting as it should. This stress of the situation can be overwhelming, so taking your puppy to another spot and giving them some TLC is recommended.

Pug on Mirror
Image By: m20143407, Pixabay

Are Mirrors Inherently Bad for Dogs?

While they might not know who that “other” dog in the mirror is, and some might cry because that “other” dog won’t play, mirrors aren’t inherently bad for dogs. Most dogs will either ignore a mirror outright or get bored with it quickly. Some might even learn how a mirror works, at least regarding the reflections of other pets and, of course, their owners. However, make sure any mirrors around your home are securely attached in place. A falling mirror can cause serious injuries to your dog.

Which Animals See Themselves in a Mirror?

If you’re curious, there are only three creatures on Earth that have “passed” the mirror test for self-awareness. They include humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Some researchers believe that more creatures are self-aware, but until now, none of them have passed the admittedly human-biased test.

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Researchers believe that dogs have a sense of self and are aware of who they are. Also, they believe that dogs recognize themselves and other dogs more with their sense of smell than their sense of sight. We hope the information provided today has answered all your questions about whether dogs understand how mirrors work. One thing is certain; whether they see themselves in a mirror or not, having a loving dog in your home shines a beautiful reflection on your life.

Featured Image Credit: Tomasz Wrzesien, Shutterstock

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