The Dog in the Mirror

dog looking in the mirror
Do you believe that looking at yourself in the mirror makes you smart? Do you tend to presume that other people who you see looking into mirrors must therefore be very smart? You may fail to see the connection between mirror-gazing and intelligence—let alone wisdom—but there’s a school of scientific thought that employs it as a yardstick in judging the intelligence of animals. Coming across this idea recently (not for the first time) made me decide, in consultation with my dog, that it was time to clear it up once and for all.

The theory goes something like this: Chimpanzees can be coaxed to examine themselves in the mirror. They can identify odd things put by scientists on their faces as being on their faces, and can even be seduced into playing around with make-up, hats and funny glasses. It has yet to be proven but perhaps—given sufficient patience and the right equipment—they can eventually come to enjoy such rewarding pastimes as injecting themselves with botox or collagen. Scientists tell us that this all proves that they are self-aware, just like human beings (self-awareness being understood as “the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals”).

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors.

Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors. So, we are told, they lack self-awareness, and this puts them on a lower rung of intelligence as compared to chimps or any other creature that can recognize and be fascinated by its own image in the looking-glass.

Yet, merely by observing my own little dog and making logical inferences based on her behavior, I am convinced that this is the boldest nonsense.

Let’s consider how dogs can be observed to deal in general with two-dimensional images of living beings. Anyone who’s owned a dog will likely have observed these things, but I’ll talk about my own dog, a small female mutt named Billie. Like many owners, I directed her attention to a mirror for the first time when she was quite young — still in puppyhood. And she reacted as most dogs will on first looking into a mirror: she seemed to think she was seeing another dog, and struck a playful stance as she would with most real dogs. She lost interest pretty quickly in the dog in the mirror, however, and trying to attract her attention to her reflection in mirrors on subsequent occasions fell flat. Pointing to her image in a mirror would at best make her sniff the exact spot I pointed to, as if there might be something good or edible there. You would think from her behavior that her own image was completely invisible to her, for all the attention she paid to it.

At the same time, like many dogs, she has proven capable of recognizing images of animals on a television screen. She will pay attention to a nice nature show with good images of interesting animals for several minutes (before falling asleep). On a few occasions she has approached the screen to sniff at especially exciting animals. So it’s quite clear that she recognizes the animals as being animals and on some level wonders as to their reality. She has also reacted with evident interest (signified by perked up ears and close visual attention) to still images of, for example, the face of a wolf or of a cat or even of a person she knows. She therefore has no great difficulty in recognizing what such two-dimensional images represent. (She has no interest in images of rocks or buildings or other inanimate things.)

The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever.

But how then can she be so oblivious to her own image in a mirror, which can only be more lifelike than any image on an electronic screen? The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever. She is interested in what another animal might do, but quite logically she has no curiousity whatsoever about what she herself might do, and she possesses no scintilla of vanity regarding her own looks.

About a year ago it occurred to me at some idle moment to try the mirror test one more time: she being much older and calmer, and me being slightly wiser as to how to give her directions. I placed her on a chair she couldn’t escape from, directly facing a mirror a few inches away. Getting her to look into the mirror would not constitute success; only getting her to look directly at herself would count. Using the most careful and calm words and gestures, I am of the belief that I actually briefly succeeded. “Look at you, look at Billie.” For a few moments, at least, I saw her look directly into her own eyes. She held her own gaze long enough for it not to have been a random thing. But other than that she had no obvious related reaction. She then turned to look at me, and wagged her tail slightly. If she could speak, I think she would have been saying, “OK … now what?”

And “Now what?” is precisly the unanswerable question. There is no utility to Billie in looking at her own reflection. She is aware it is herself—i.e. she is self-aware—but in the absence of vanity or neuroticism about her appearance, there is simply no response for her to make to it. The image of herself in the looking-glass may as well be invisible.

In anticipation of writing this reflection on reflections, I harassed Billie by putting her in front of a mirror one more time. This time I wasn’t trying to get her to look pointlessly at herself; I was just trying to get an appropriate photo to go along with the piece of writing (as you have to accompany everything on the internet with a picture or else it doesn’t exist). Billie kept turning her head to look at me as I took pictures, because she now expects to get treats when she poses for pictures (she works for peanuts: dry roasted, unsalted). I didn’t want her turning to look at me, so this was a bit of a problem. It was solved when she caught a glimpse of me in the mirror. She was satisfied to keep her eye on me there for a little while — long enough to take a series of shots including the one at the top and the one below here.

dog looking in a mirror

So she watched me in the mirror to keep herself informed as to whether I was reaching for a treat. In other words, she used the mirror entirely appropriately, understanding its function and purpose. She knew that the reflection of me was a true representation of me, in real time. Her own reflection continued to be of no interest whatsoever to her.

I have to conclude that this is not evidence of a lack of intelligence or “self-awareness,” but evidence instead of the employment of exceedingly practical sense and the total absence of useless vanity.

I don’t know if—overall—chimpanzees are “smarter” than dogs or not, but I think this comparison of the two animals’ behavior with mirrors demonstrates only one thing for certain: the moral superiority of the canine. Unless, that is, vanity is now officially listed among the virtues rather than the vices.

And if dogs possess this moral superiority as compared to chimps, the same equation does not come out very well for the only slightly less hairy ape writing these words.

And just to prove that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, the above conclusion is mirrored, after all, in Lord Byron’s famous “Epitaph to a Dog” from 1808.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.


“The Man in the Looking Glass,” sung by Frank Sinatra