Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an "olfactory mirror" test

Behav Processes. 2017 Oct:143:17-24. doi: 10.1016/j.beproc.2017.08.001. Epub 2017 Aug 7.


While domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, have been found to be skillful at social cognitive tasks and even some meta-cognitive tasks, they have not passed the test of mirror self-recognition (MSR). Acknowledging the motivational and sensory challenges that might hinder performance, even before the question of self-recognition is broached, this study creates and enacts a novel design extrapolated from the species' natural behaviour. Given dogs' use of olfactory signals in communication, this experiment presents dogs with various canisters for approach and investigation. Each holds an odorous stimulus: in the critical test, either an "olfactory mirror" of the subject - the dog's own urine - or one in which the odour stimulus is modified. By looking at subjects' investigation times of each canister, it is shown that dogs distinguish between the olfactory "image" of themselves when modified: investigating their own odour for longer when it had an additional odour accompanying it than when it did not. Such behaviour implies a recognition of the odour as being of or from "themselves." The ecological validity of this odour presentation is examined by presenting to the subjects odours of other known or unknown dogs: dogs spend longer investigating the odour of other dogs than their own odour. Finally, in a second experiment, subjects spent longer with the modified stimulus than with the modified odour by itself, indicating that novelty alone does not explain the dogs' behavior. This study translates the MSR study for a species whose primary sensory modality is olfaction, and finds both that natural sniffing behaviour can be replicated in the lab and that dogs show more investigative interest in their own odours when modified.

Keywords: Domestic dogs; Mirror self-recognition; Olfactory investigation; Olfactory mirror; Sniffing.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Dogs
  • Ego*
  • Male
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Perception*
  • Recognition, Psychology*