How Self Aware Is a Dog?

A mirror test is one way to measure a dog's self-awareness level.
i Stephen Chernin/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Self-awareness is generally defined as the ability to recognize one's own individuality and unique characteristics. Measuring whether dogs have this knowledge is challenging because it's often based on traditional self-awareness tests. By using other measurements, however, it's possible to establish that dogs are self-aware.


Some researchers maintain dogs are not self-aware because they fail what is known as the mirror test. Unlike people and a select group of animals, dogs do not seem to realize when an image in a mirror is theirs.

A dog might not even notice his reflection. Conversely, he might bark at the mirror, paw at it or attempt to play with the reflection because he believes it's another dog, according to Psychology Today. Some researchers believe these behaviors indicate a lack of self-awareness.


Gordon G. Gallup Jr., a psychologist, developed the mirror test in 1970. The test was used to determine if chimpanzees could recognize themselves and changes in their appearance. Since then, it has remained a standard self-awareness test. Over time, researchers have used the test on dogs and other animals, according to NPR News.

In Gallup’s original experiment, chimpanzees were given mirrors so they could look at themselves. Next, researchers painted an odorless red mark above an eyebrow and over an ear. Upon looking into the mirror again, the chimps touched the marks as if they were trying to understand them. In other words, the chimpanzees recognized the reflection was theirs and that something was different.

Elephants and dolphins are among other creatures who have taken and passed the mirror test, according to NPR News. The mirror test is also used as a baseline for measuring when human children reach self-awareness, one of the milestones of psychological development.

Just for Dogs

Critics maintain the mirror test isn't fit for dogs. Take Marc Bekoff, for example, who developed a self-awareness test specifically for canines.

A professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, Bekoff used his own dog at the time, Jethro, for the experiment. During the experiment, Jethro seemed to show he could identify whether he or another dog had lifted a leg in a certain area. Jethro showed little interest in his own handiwork. But he sniffed and investigated much longer where other dogs made their mark. That suggested Jethro knew what was his.

Degrees of Awareness

Bekoff dismisses the notion that dogs have no sense of self. Instead, he maintains there are degrees of self-awareness in dogs. For example, dogs understand they're able to do things with their bodies, such as running and jumping. A dog can also know if a particular toy is his. Bekoff uses the terms "mine-ness" and "body-ness" to describe this type of self-awareness in dogs.

Finally, Bekoff notes that further study -- and more testing -- is needed to investigate the issue of self-awareness in dogs. His other research has found that animals experience a wide range of emotions, including joy, grief and love.

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