Can Dogs Recognize Themselves in The Mirror?

What does your dog see when they look in the mirror? Do they understand that they’re looking at themselves? Find out the answers through science and research.

May 20, 2024By Donna Hobson
can dogs recognize themselves in the mirror

If you’ve ever watched your dog react to seeing its reflection in the mirror, you’ll know how entertaining the experience can be. But what is your canine thinking? Do they think there’s another dog in a mirror world, or do they understand that it’s their own reflection?

Continue reading to discover if dogs can recognize themselves in the mirror and whether they can use these reflections to solve problems.

Can Dogs Recognize Themselves in The Mirror?

dog mirror reflection
Credit: Image by Thomas G on Pixabay

Recent research has demonstrated that dogs may have a level of self-awareness and even understand the size and shape of their own bodies; still, there is no evidence to suggest that they can recognize their own reflection in the mirror.

Researchers use the “mirror mark test,” placing a visible mark on an animal’s face to see if they respond to it. But so far, dogs have failed to recognize themselves in this standard test - only great apes and elephants have shown that they understand the concept of reflection.

Although dogs don’t recognize their reflections, they can differentiate their unique odor or recall memories of specific events.

Are Dogs Self-Aware?

dog relaxing suitcase
Credit: Image by Rayleen Slegers on Pixabay

If you’ve ever watched a dog playing, it’s easy to see why people believe these mammals lack self-awareness. If you’ve ever shared a bed with a dog, you’ll have a clear idea that these canines might not always realize how much space they take up or how big their bodies are.

However, a study published in 2021 entitled “Dogs recognize their own body as a physical obstacle” blows this assertion out of the window with the conclusion that dogs do have a level of self-awareness and an understanding of their size and mass.

In the study, dogs had to pick up and give an object to their owners; the trick was that they couldn’t lift the object until they moved their weight from the mat that they were standing on. And this recent research is one of the compelling pieces of evidence that dogs could possess self-awareness.

This backs up research published in 2019, in which dogs were presented with different sized openings, the smaller ones of which they approached with caution. After they did not attempt to pass through the ones that were too small for their bodies, scientists concluded that dogs could understand their size and build.

We’re still a long way from understanding how much awareness dogs possess, though we do now know that they have some level of body awareness, and this is one element that contributes to an overall sense of self-awareness.

What Do Dogs Think When They See Themselves in The Mirror?

dog mirror reflection playing
Credit: Image by Ulrike Mai on Pixabay

You won’t see a dog checking how their fur looks when they pass a mirror, but that doesn’t mean they don’t notice their reflection.

When a dog first encounters their reflection, it will likely assume it to be a fellow member of its species. Young dogs will often run around, paw, or bark at the image; sometimes, the behaviors may become less jovial and result in a stiff posture or unbroken glare.

But then something changes; the dog discovers that no matter what they do, there is no consequence - the reflection doesn’t react. And over time, this leads them to ignore the mirror in a learning style called habituation.

According to the Principles of Animal Learning by Stuart Hilliard, “Habituation is the gradual loss of responsiveness to a stimulus as a result of repeated exposure to that stimulus.” Owners can use this learning style to decrease the fear response in dogs and get them used to some aspects of their surroundings.

And a dog’s ability to habituate highlights its learning and memory abilities.

Can Dogs Use Mirrors?

dog mirror bathroom
Credit: Image by Elina Volkova on Pexels

Researchers at the Anthrozoology Research Group attempted to answer this question with two experiments.

In the first experiment, dogs had to try and find their owner using a mirror. During the test, one owner directed their dog's attention to a mirror. In this mirror, the dog could see its other owner holding the canine’s favorite toy - but this image was only visible if the dog looked in the mirror.

Out of the 40 dogs who participated in the experiment, only seven turned around to look at their owner after seeing the image in the mirror. This suggests that some dogs may understand the nature of the reflection; however, those dogs could represent the minority rather than the majority.

In the second experiment, the dogs had to try and locate food that was only visible via a strategically placed mirror. This time 77% of the dogs managed to locate the food after they saw its reflection in the mirror. But the problem with this study is that the dogs could have relied on other senses to find the food.

Not only was there an experimental group of dogs, but there was also a control group - this group had no mirror and no way to see where the food was hidden. Still, 41% of dogs in the control group found the food via their extraordinary sense of smell.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.