Dogs bark at a lot of things. Postal carriers. Cats. Other dogs.
But the perhaps most mystifying is when dogs bark at their own reflection.
Often, when a dog is confronted by his or her own reflection, they will start barking for apparently no reason.
What’s happening in your pup’s head?
Why is my dog barking at her reflection?
Your dog likely doesn’t quite understand her reflection.
Have you ever walked into a dark bathroom and then gotten startled at the movement inside? Most people have done something like this at one point or another, especially when if they were tired or otherwise distracted.
To understand why your dog barks at her reflection, you first should understand that dogs don’t rely on their sense of sight as much as people do. Or, perhaps more accurately, they rely on their other senses a lot more. Particularly, their sense of smell.
To a dog, a sense of smell is everything. So, when they see something moving in a mirror, they aren’t really understanding it the way that we do. It just looks like a moving shape to them; they don’t recognize it as themselves (with some very rare, intelligent dogs being different).
So, a dog has seen a mysterious creature on the other side of what could just be glass and she doesn’t know what it is. More concerningly, she also doesn’t smell anything when she looks at it.
Your dog is going to think that it’s another dog or that it’s another something. Because your dog doesn’t know what she looks like, she can’t immediately conceive of the image as herself. So, she’s going to assume that she’s looking at something like glass, and that something else is on the other side.
Of course, this behavior is more common in puppies. Over time, most dogs are going to learn to ignore the reflection in the mirror. With time, some dogs are going to recognize it as themselves. But very few dogs will recognize themselves on a camera (such as the selfie-mode of a phone) because they simply don’t have that type of self-awareness.
This is mostly harmless. But the barking can get annoying.
How do I get my dog to stop barking at his reflection?
Well, you now know why your dog is barking at his reflection. But that leads to an equally important issue: How do you get him to stop?
Your dog is barking at his reflection because he thinks it’s another dog whose attention it can get or because it’s afraid of it. Either way, unfortunately, the only real thing to do is continue to expose him to the reflection.
The easiest way to do this is to continue to keep your dog in the room. Don’t react to the reflection and don’t acknowledge it. Over time, your dog should realize that the reflection can’t do them any harm. Try feeding your dog next to the reflection and playing with your dog next to the reflection. In older dogs, it should eventually “kick in” that the reflection is their own — even though they can’t really understand the way that a mirror works.
Puppies can be another challenge altogether. Puppies have a tendency to get “obsessed” with and bark at certain things. It can be something as innocent as a sock or as obvious as another dog. But it’s very easy for a puppy to get obsessed with and continually bark at a reflection. It may be easier to keep your puppy away from reflections until it gets older and can inherently understand that it is just a reflection.
Most irritating behaviors such as barking at things can be resolved through “redirection.” You wait until the dog has calmed down and then you give the dog a treat, but only once sufficiently calmed. Puppies that are very young can be more difficult to train because they don’t understand the consequences and the rewards for their actions as easily and they have a far shorter attention span. When you were a baby, a mirror was probably just as fascinating!
An easy way to get barking under control even with a young dog is to first teach the dog to “speak.” Once you’ve taught the dog to bark at command, you can then teach them “quiet” — to stop barking. Often, learning has to begin by modeling the behavior that is undesirable, so the dog understands when to use that behavior and when not to.
Why is my dog afraid of her reflection?
Your dog is afraid of her reflection for the same reason that we would be afraid of a two-dimensional, scentless being.
Mirrors are scary.
In fact, many horror movies use mirrors as dimensions into another world, and it’s not surprising why. The very idea of reality being replicated across a pane of glass is quite frightening even to people. When you catch a glimpse of a mirror out of the corner of your eye, it can easily be mistaken as something mysterious and frightening. To a dog, it’s all mysterious and frightening.
A dog’s senses just can’t make sense of a reflection. Because of that, a dog could assume that what is on the other side is another dog ready to attack it, or some kind of terrifying half-dog figure that just does not smell right. Regardless, what’s important is that your dog doesn’t understand that it’s a mirror; it only sees it as a strange and confusing part of reality.
Most dogs are going to eventually ignore mirrors. But puppies and dogs that haven’t seen mirrors up close are very likely to be afraid of (or angry at) their reflection until they get used to it. The only thing you can do is make sure to regularly expose your pup to mirrors. Eventually, they will realize that there isn’t any harm.
Until your dog is comfortable around mirrors, you may want to watch them, however. You don’t want your dog thinking about attacking the glass! After all, when you run at your reflection, your reflection also appears to run at you.
Do dogs recognize themselves in the mirror?
Interestingly, many animals cannot recognize themselves in the mirror.
This has to do with awareness.
To test whether an animal can recognize itself, a sticker is often placed on them. If the animal sees itself in the mirror and then looks at the sticker on themselves, it is “aware”; it has seen the sticker in its reflection and then realized that it must be on itself as well. Some birds, notably corvids, can display this type of awareness! But very few other animals can.
Scientifically, most dogs cannot recognize themselves in the mirror. They just lack that capability. This is because the mirror’s two-dimensional image is just nothing like a dog to them. It doesn’t smell like a dog. They know that something is moving and they may fear that it’s something behind a sheet of glass or otherwise “present,” but they most definitely don’t recognize it as themselves.
Anecdotally, there are many tales of hyper-intelligent dogs who can, in fact, eventually noodle it out that what is behind the mirror is their own reflection. But scientifically, it’s more likely that the dog is really realizing that whatever it is isn’t a threat. While they may have some understanding that the mirror relates to themselves and their actions, they don’t recognize it as “themselves” in the way that humans do.
After all, consider that when you look into a mirror, you yourself are flipped. Abstractly, we can recognize that; we move our right hand, and the image’s left hand moves. But that’s actually a lot of processing that many animals aren’t going to be able to do.
So, no, your dog probably can’t recognize itself in the mirror. But it may seem that it can, because over time, it will become more familiar with how a mirror works — even if it doesn’t instinctively know that the mirror is “them.”