I Think, Therefore I Am A Dog
Many of us have shared a bed with a dog or had a 60-pound adult try to sit on our lap like a puppy. We may have wondered if the dog understood their bodily dimensions and how they fit into a given area. Knowing where our body is in space is necessary to negotiate our environment. This body awareness is one of the building blocks of higher-order states of self-awareness. Known as “self-representation,” it is the image a subject has of him/herself. At just five months of age, human infants can distinguish their own moving legs from those on a video recording. They have made the connection between what they see and what they feel. But do other animals have this same capacity? And if so, how can we tell?
Body awareness is the ability of an organism to hold information about its own body in its mind. To gauge canine body awareness, researchers in Hungary tested 32 family dogs in the “body as an obstacle task”. The mean age was 5.6 years, and the dogs were of various breeds and genders. Previous research such as the mirror mark test failed to produce evidence of canine self-awareness. However, research has shown that dogs display empathy, social learning, theory of mind, and can provide referential signals. These abilities suggest the presence of complex cognitive capacities in dogs, so some sort of self-awareness seems likely.
For the experiment, dogs were told to pick up and give an object to their guardian while standing on a small mat. In the control condition, the object was attached to the floor. Researchers theorized that the dogs would eventually realize that they couldn’t move the object and get off the mat. In the test condition, the object was attached to the mat. This forced the dogs to leave the mat to accomplish the task, perhaps in response to the sensation of pulling under their feet as they tried to pry the object loose. Experimenters also ran a “foot discomfort” test to make sure the dogs were not moving off the mat simply because of the sensation on their paws created as they tugged on the object.
Dogs left the mat more quickly and more frequently in the test condition than in the control condition. The “foot discomfort” test did not show that the dogs changed their behavior because of the mat surfaces or movements created by the experimenters. This combination of outcomes provided evidence that the dogs were indeed aware of their bodies and how they affected their environment. They figured out when they themselves were the obstacle and reacted accordingly.
While dogs may not recognize their bodies in a mirror, this study suggests they do possess at least one of the building blocks of self-awareness. This study may be most useful for animal advocates who work in regions where dogs are seen as little more than their basic physiology. It provides yet another piece of evidence that dogs have interior lives and thus merit treatment as such.