Sit, stay, be self aware: Dogs are smarter than we thought according to new research

They may not recognize their reflection, but a dog's nose knows itself all too well

They may not recognize their reflection, but a dog's nose knows itself all too well

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We get it; your dog is a genius. They know all the tricks, every command, how to manipulate you with a whimper and just when to curl up on the bed to make you feel better. But bring your pooch over to the mirror and what happens? Absolutely nothing. They show zero recognition of themselves even though their reflection is staring right back at them. This has led to the belief that dogs are incapable of being self aware — that they can't identify themselves in the world the way a human would. But it may not be that dogs lack awareness of themselves, we might have just been testing them wrong because, according to a new study, a dog's nose knows.

The study, conducted by researchers at Barnard College and published in the Behavioral Processes journal, aimed to examine whether or not dogs could recognize themselves via their strongest sense: smell. The hypothesis for this study was proposed last year by Professor Cazzolla Gatti, who wondered why other species (like dogs and dolphins) failed the mirror test, but displayed extremely high cognitive abilities otherwise. It was unfair to test a pup's self awareness by human standards when each species has vastly different abilities.

To test Gatti's hypothesis, researchers took 36 domesticated dogs (along with their owners) and presented each of them with a series of scented canisters. Some canisters contained the dog's own scent, via their urine, while others contained alterations (the scent of another dog over top of their own). They then monitored and timed each dog's behaviour around each scent.

The findings showed that each dog spent less time around the canister that contained just their scent than they did with the altered version. Researchers interpreted this pattern to suggest that, because the dogs are cognizant of their own unique scent, they have much less interest in it compared to the scent of another dog, which they were previously unaware of. A second test found the dogs spent more time sniffing the altered version of their scent with another dog compared to the other dog's scent by itself, suggesting that the dogs also exhibit a high level of self interest. No matter which way you sniff it, these results seem to imply that dogs do possess some sense of themselves, though further testing with a larger sample size would be needed to make any definitive conclusions.

While the findings themselves will certainly beget more research into canine self awareness, the real breakthrough here is in the success of this type of testing versus the previous ones. Developing testing methods around each species' leading abilities can yield far greater and deeper understanding than a one-test-fits-all approach.

This self awareness is just another in an ever-growing list of what we're learning about man's best friend. Beyond their inherent adorability, we've learned that they can count, see colour and tell time! Even their hearing is more sophisticated than we realized; stressed out dogs can actually chill out when they hear reggae. Learning these canine capabilities goes a long way in informing how we handle and interact with our dogs. We've found more effective ways to train them, developed smarter technology to keep them engaged and uncovered better ways to socialize them into our growing households (relax cat people, felines are smart too). So next time you come home to a shredded up couch cushion, don't be fooled by those eyes, they know exactly what they did.