What is your dog thinking when she stares into the mirror? Does she think what a doll she is? Does she consider whether she needs a trip to the groomer? Does she even recognize herself?

Why does your dog stare into the mirror? These are great questions, and you have more. Delve into the interesting answers.

Why does my dog stare in the mirror?

Your dog, sadly enough, cannot tell you her perception of what she sees when she glances into the mirror. You can only look at your dog’s response to her reflection, and dogs have varying responses to mirrors.

How do dogs react to their reflection in a mirror?

Some dogs, especially puppies, will try to play with their reflection as if with another dog. Some will simply stare into the mirror having seemingly no reaction at all. Others will seem startled or afraid and stare, stiffened and clenched, possibly cowered in fear at the dog in the mirror.

Another reaction is that some dogs become aggressive, barking, showing their teeth, and even letting out a low growl. Yet other dogs will completely ignore a mirror, walking right on by like it wasn’t there.

Why do they react this way?

Puppies who try to play with their reflections in a mirror quite obviously don’t realize that the reflections are just themselves in a mirror, and they are trying to make a new friend. They don’t realize this isn’t a real dog at all.

Dogs that seem to have no reaction at all, the ones that simply seem to stare deep into the void of the mirror are the ones who are probably still trying to figure it out. Who is that dog in the mirror?

Dogs can become immediately aggressive, or even those who at first seem startled or afraid can eventually become aggressive. This is probably either in a territorial or defensive stance, respectively.

Lastly, there are the dogs who ignore the mirror. It is possible, though unlikely, that a dog has the ability to recognize herself when she looks in a mirror but unlike a human, is uninterested, due to a lack of vanity.

It could also be that the dog did look into a mirror once or twice and saw a dog but did not understand who the dog was, making them lose interest. Another thing that could have made them lose interest is that the dog in the mirror didn’t act as other dogs do.

Lastly, there is “habituation.” This is when an animal, in this instance a dog, loses interest in a particular thing simply to preserve her energy for other things.

Do dogs possess self-awareness?

Let’s see what we can figure out about the self-awareness of dogs.

When human children become self-aware

A human child is somewhere between 18 months and two years old before they become self-aware. This has been proven using “the rouge test.”

During the rouge test, Researchers using babies of different ages would put a dot of red rouge on the baby’s forehead. Then, they would put them in front of a mirror to see their reaction.

They found that babies under 18 months old did not possess self-awareness, but that 2-year-olds, and in some cases, toddlers as young as 18 months old showed signs of self-awareness when they, after seeing the red dot in the mirror, reached up to their forehead to touch it.

Gordon G. Gallup, Jr.

Gordon G. Gallup, Jr. is a psychologist in the University of Albany psychology department. In 1970, when he was at Tulane University, he developed the MSR (Mirror Self-Recognition) test or “mirror test,” inspired by Charles Darwin, to test for self-recognition in animals. 

He essentially did the rouge test on animals but with odorless dye. Gorillas had mixed results on the mirror test with those having had extensive contact with humans passing more often. This result, however, may be skewed by the fact that gorillas see eye contact as a sign of aggression and thus, may avoid making eye contact with the gorilla in the mirror.

Gallup found that animals such as killer whales, bottlenose dolphins, orangutans, and bonobos showed signs of self-awareness, but that only great apes passed the test conclusively. Animals that have not been able to pass the mirror test include horses, monkeys, parrots, octopuses, sea lions, cats, and dogs. 

The takeaway, at least for Gallup, was that since dogs supposedly don’t see themselves in a mirror and see another animal instead, they are not conscious of the fact that “they exist,” or that they are not self-aware.

Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal

However, Dr. Fran B. M. de Waal disagrees. He is a Dutch American primatologist and biologist. In 2016, he wrote a book called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? In his book, de Waal argues that the animals’ failure to pass the mirror test was more a product of an imagination deficit than the animals’ lack of self-awareness.

His argument was that humans simply lacked the imagination to figure out a way to test dogs, or other animals, in ways that would reveal their self-awareness.

Roberto Cazzolla Gatti

Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, an Italian biologist at Tomsk State University in Russia, wrote a pioneering paper in 2016 called Self-consciousness: beyond the looking-glass and what dogs found there. In it, Gatti essentially said the same thing that de Wall said and suggested the “sniff test” for animals, like dogs, who may not have done well in the mirror test but who he thought may do well in a test in which they could use their most keen sense, their sense of smell.

Mark Bekoff

Mark Bekoff conducted the “yellow snow study” over a 5-winter period and released the results in 2001. In the yellow snow study, he took dog urine, some from Jethro, an adult, male dog, and that of other dogs, and moved it to different places. 

He would then take Jethro out and record his reaction to the different patches of urine. He spent more time sniffing the other dogs’ urine, both male and female, than he did his own. He marked over the urine of the other males more than he did the females and usually did not mark his own.

The issues with Bekoff’s study are that it used only dogs and that it used only one dog.

Dr. Alexandra Horowitz

In 2017, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz wrote a paper called Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test. In the 2017 study, she validates Gatti’s findings concerning the STSR (Sniff Test of Self-Recognition) and also his hypothesis regarding dogs and other animals’ self-awareness.

She continues on with Roberto Gatti’s research looking for creative, new ways to discover self-awareness in animals.

Why does my dog look at the mirror and cry?

It is not unusual for puppies to stare into the mirror and cry. It is probably simply because they think it is another puppy that won’t play with them. This makes them sad and frustrated. He should eventually move on to something else and should grow out of this.

Why does my dog look at me in the mirror?

Your dog is probably not actually staring at you in the mirror, or at least she doesn’t realize she is, and that is the problem. She is staring at a “you” that she is suspicious of.

She sees you in the mirror but more than likely, knows you are there in the room behind her, and this is quite unnerving to her. As long as she doesn’t get aggressive, it isn’t a problem.

Do mirrors scare dogs?

Some dogs are startled or scared by mirrors, and this isn’t really an issue unless it causes your dog to become aggressive. If it does, it is time to act.

What do I do if my dog gets aggressive around mirrors?

If your dog should become aggressive around mirrors, you should start by separating your dog from the source of aggression by keeping her away from mirrors. Keep her out of rooms with mirrors or keep mirrors covered.

The main reason this can be a problem is that a dog who is aggressive with a dog in a mirror could “attack” the dog in the mirror, breaking the mirror and gravely hurting themselves or someone else.

Another reason is that this can lead to aggression with other animals, in general. If you start having these issues, you may want to seek behavioral therapy.

What do I do if my dog gets too excited around mirrors?

Follow the same advice if your dog gets too playful and excited around the dog in the mirror. If she gets too playful or excited, it is possible that she might jump onto the mirror and break it, causing injury to herself or others.

Author

I created and currently manage Pet Dog Owner, the website you can go to when you have questions about your dog's behavior. It is my hope that you find Pet Dog Owner to be a helpful resource. It is also my hope that it will help you to improve your relationship with your dog. You can read more about me and my website here.