A dog and a human are sitting opposite each other with two screens placed between them, one opaque and the other clear. Behind each of the screens, on the dog’s side and visible to the dog, is a toy. The human asks the dog to bring them a toy and the dog chooses the one that is visible to the human, the one that is behind the clear screen rather than the one behind the opaque screen. Surely the human must be giving some information to the dog about which toy they want them to bring by gazing at it? Well, this does not seem to be the case. What happens if there are two clear screens, or the human sits on the same side as the dog with a view of both toys? In this scenario the dog randomly brings one of the toys not favouring one over another.
When I came across this study showing that dogs are aware of the perspective of a human, I started to wonder how dogs perceived themselves. Are they aware of themselves, what they know, how they fit into their physical and social environment? In other terms, do they have a sense of self? These are questions about cognition, how you gain and process (make sense of) information from the environment and meta-cognition, being aware of your own perceptions and knowledge. Knowing what we know and what we do not know. These cognitive abilities are challenging to study in animals other than humans since they are unable to describe to us how they experience their sense of self. Instead, we focus on studying specific aspects of cognition and combine pieces of knowledge gained together into a puzzle that might give us a glimpse into the minds of other animals.
How would you or I be aware of how we look at this moment? We would probably look at our reflection in a mirror. This is what many scientists have used to test whether animals can recognise themselves. They usually place a mark on an area of an animal’s body that they cannot easily see and often when the animal is asleep or sedated so they don’t feel it. They then present the animal with a mirror and conclude that they recognise themselves in the reflection or not based on their behaviour. This experiment has been carried out on several different animals such as ants, fish, birds and apes. Many have failed the test, meaning they did not look at, investigate and touch the new mark on their bodies through the mirror (although apes and ants have responded to their reflections). You may not be surprised that dogs fail as well. If we think about it, the mirror test has a human centred viewpoint. It assumes that animals primarily use vision to perceive themselves, others and their environment and assumes they understand the properties of reflection.
Therefore, we owe it to animals to explore cognitive abilities through a more biologically meaningful way by focusing on what we know about how the animal senses its environment. This was the main argument by researchers looking into whether dogs recognise themselves from the smell of their own urine. Those who have dogs will know that a good portion of dog walk involves standing and waiting for your canine friend to get the latest updates from ‘nose-book’ and maybe even leave their own post for others to find. The researchers gave 12 dogs the opportunity to smell their own urine and that of another dog. To no surprise dogs preferred an unknown dog’s urine to theirs, investigating it for longer. It may be that the unknown dog’s urine is interesting to them whereas their own scent was nothing new. Dogs were also presented with their own urine that had been modified, analogous to the mirror test when a mark is placed on an animal’s body. They added anise essential oils into the dog’s own urine and presented it alongside a canister containing just the essential oil. Dogs investigated their modified scent for longer than the essential oil smell. It is likely that the dogs recognised their own scent and found it interesting or even strange that it smelled different. Maybe the dogs were just interested in the new scent of the essential oil? If this was the case, they would have investigated it for longer or the same amount of time as their modified scent. In this study dogs also investigated the smell of a familiar dog in a similar way as their own. What can we conclude from these findings? We can say that dogs perceive familiar and unfamiliar scents, but we cannot know what they perceive, or what meaning they gain from them.
Another form of self-awareness is knowing how much space your body takes up. Being aware of their size might be beneficial to animals if they need to hide from predators or prey, avoid falling off or over objects, or getting stuck. This question was explored in a simple way by providing dogs with different sized openings which they could pass through to gain access to a food reward or their owner placed on the other side. Some dogs were exposed to large holes or small holes first then the hole size changed to a midpoint between the two extremes. The amount of time it took dogs to start moving towards and to reach the different sized holes gives some insight into their perception of whether they would fit through or not. Dogs took longer to approach the small than the large hole suggesting some hesitation about whether they would be able to fit through the opening or not. Dogs appear to have some awareness of the size of their physical bodies and their interaction with physical objects in the environment. What about being aware of their own behaviour and actions? This has been investigated in dogs through studying their memory.
Episodic memory is remembering an event that took place at a certain time and place. This type of memory has been studied in bird species, such as jays, that naturally hide the food they have collected. The birds remember where they hid something, what it was and how long ago. For example, scrub jays would only reclaim perishable food such as wax worms from the place they had buried it after a short amount of time had passed compared to longer periods of time as it would be likely that the food had decomposed by then . A group of researchers at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest explored this memory ability in dogs. They wanted to see if dogs could remember an action that they themselves had carried out after some time had passed. They trained dogs to learn that ‘repeat’ meant repeat the behaviour they had just carried out, either a trick or a spontaneous behaviour such as drinking water or lying down. The dogs were able to perform their last behaviour when asked to repeat it after 20 second, 1 minute and 1-hour delays. They were best at repeating their last behaviour after a shorter time delay suggesting their memory declined with time, and therefore evidence that they were relying on remembering their own actions.
If dogs are aware of their own behaviours then maybe they are aware of their own knowledge. Knowing what you know and don’t know is a form of meta-cognition. Animals may seek more information when they are uncertain about their knowledge, such as the location of their food. Therefore, experiments are set up to provide the animal with an option to find out more information before making decisions when they are uncertain of the correct answer. Dogs were given a choice between two options. They were presented with two identical V shaped fences that had a 2 centimetre gap in them. Rewards such as food or toys were always only placed behind one of the two fences at any one time. Dogs could check by smelling or peering through the gap before deciding which fence to run behind when they were uncertain that the treat or toy was located there. If they made a mistake by choosing the wrong fence, they would not have access to the reward. The researchers wanted to see if dogs were aware of their knowledge about which fence had a reward placed behind it by comparing their checking behaviour. When dogs observed a person hide a reward behind one of the two fences they checked in the gap less often than in conditions when they were not able to observe the hiding process. Instead of always checking before deciding on the fence, dogs were responding to the certainty of their knowledge about the food’s location. It is worth noting that even when they observed the hiding of the reward, dogs sometimes checked as if to make sure they were correct.
What does the sense of self look like to dogs? It is probably different to how we perceive ourselves. We share cognitive abilities with animals but which ones, how many and how prominent depends on the species. We have our own puzzle of cognitive abilities that fit with the way we live our lives. To some extent dogs know who they are physically in space, from their own scent and may be aware of their own knowledge and can remember their own actions. This is not surprising since they are social animals, primarily sense their environment through smell and communicate and live closely with another species. In the meantime they will continue to amaze us with their abilities, sparking the creation of nifty ways to explore more pieces to a puzzle that will hopefully give us more insight into the minds of our furry friends.