“We need bet­ter ex­per­i­ments to find out what dogs know”

Dogs don’t recog­nise changes to their own ap­pear­ance – the ‘mir­ror test’ of in­tel­li­gence. But as dog cog­ni­tion ex­pert Dr Alexan­dra Horowitz ex­plains, there’s a rea­son they fail

Focus-Science and Technology - - Discoveries -

Why is self- recog­ni­tion a sign of in­tel­li­gence?

Self-recog­ni­tion comes out of the com­par­a­tive cog­ni­tion field, where peo­ple test if non-hu­man an­i­mals can prob­lem solve, im­i­tate or learn, just as we would ask of chil­dren. Some ques­tions are about meta- cog­ni­tion – think­ing about think­ing. One meta- cog­ni­tive skill is ‘the­ory of mind’ – the re­al­i­sa­tion that oth­ers have minds dif­fer­ent from your own, and know things you don’t. Hu­mans gain this skill af­ter about the age of three.

What is the mir­ror test?

This in­volves look­ing at your­self in the mir­ror and recog­nis­ing that some­thing has changed. The story goes that [psy­chol­o­gist] Gor­don Gallup was shav­ing, and won­dered if his cap­tive chim­panzees would look in a mir­ror and see them­selves the way he did. So he put a mir­ror in their en­clo­sure. They at­tacked be­cause there was a chimp run­ning at them, but they soon learned and started to ex­am­ine them­selves. He sur­rep­ti­tiously marked chim­panzees on the fore­head with an odour­less red dye and recorded their be­hav­iour the next time they saw their re­flec­tion. His chimps touched the mark on their own head, not the mir­ror, and tried to smell the dye on their fin­gers. That was con­sid­ered pass­ing the mir­ror self-recog­ni­tion test.

Which an­i­mals pass the test?

Dol­phins have passed us­ing marks on their sides and a re­flec­tive sur­face in their aquar­ium, mov­ing their bod­ies in un­usual ways to see the mark. One African ele­phant passed the test and mag­pies have passed. But a num­ber haven’t passed, like rh­e­sus macaque mon­keys. Dogs don’t pass the test. But think about dif­fer­ences in sen­sory equip­ment and what’s im­por­tant for an­i­mals – whether they live with oth­ers, their so­cial or­gan­i­sa­tion, whether they groom them­selves. All seem rel­e­vant to whether one might pass. With dogs, you have not a visual but an ol­fac­tory [scent- driven] crea­ture.

So how did you test dogs?

I looked at a nat­u­ral dog be­hav­iour: they uri­nate, leav­ing in­for­ma­tion in their pee. They also sniff other dogs’ urine mark­ings, so some­thing is com­mu­ni­cated, pre­sum­ably about iden­tity. They’re in­ter­ested in who else is around. So I de­signed an ‘ol­fac­tory mir­ror’. I col­lected urine from 35 dogs and put small

amounts of the urine into can­is­ters with air holes, then ex­posed the can­is­ters to the dogs. The dogs spent less time sniff­ing their own urine and longer sniff­ing other dogs’. But then I took their odour and added anise (the scent of liquorice) to it. Sure enough, they spent more time sniff­ing their own odour with this mark.

So are dogs smarter than we think?

We have to take se­ri­ously what it’s like to be an ol­fac­tory crea­ture, and how that re­vises what their cog­ni­tion might be. It’s pos­si­ble that dogs have a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of them­selves. Sim­ply the fact we haven’t been able to an­swer these ques­tions pre­vi­ously shouldn’t lead us to as­sume that dogs don’t have the ca­pac­ity – we just need bet­ter ex­per­i­ments to find out what it is that dogs al­ready know.

ABOVE: Dogs may be more in­tel­li­gent than we re­alise, de­spite not pass­ing the mir­ror test

BE­LOW: The mir­ror self-recog­ni­tion test was based on an ex­per­i­ment with chim­panzees

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