Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dogs, Mirrors, and Intelligence

I've been told various solid facts about dogs and mirrors: dogs aren't visual enough to notice reflections, they don't understand reflections, they lose interest as soon as they realize they can't smell the other dog, and so on.

Here's your solid fact from me: it depends on the dog.

Tasha, our longcoat shepherd, will ride in the back of the car and look at us in the rearview. She likes to check in that way. There is definite eye contact, and if we smile at her, she will thump her tail. This is supposed to be beyond canine comprehension, as though we'd found her programming the DVR to record "Good Dog U." for later. She seems to find it quite natural.

Wanda, now five and a half months old, has been experimenting with the bedroom in the mirror. The other night, I was sitting on the bed, and she decided to have a good gawk at my reflection. I waved at her reflection. She wagged a little and turned to look straight at me. Then she got up, walked around the dresser, and peered at where my reflection would have seemed to her to be located. Then she went back to the mirror and watched me in it again. She went back and forth to make sure there was only one of me a couple of times. When I laughed, she cocked her head and pondered, apparently, that she only heard one of me. She seems now to have a pretty good idea of how a mirror works -- but she was experimenting to find out. To me, both the experimenting and the apparent comprehension suggest a good deal of intelligence.

With Dustin, I'm intending to set up an experiment. I want to put him in a sit-stay facing a mirror, then stand behind him and give him a "down" signal he can only see in the reflection. If he goes down, he sees the image and understands it's a representation of the real world. If he doesn't respond, then he's not processing enough visual information to mean much to him. If he looks over his shoulder to see if I mean it, then he is aware the reflection isn't real but doesn't quite get the connection to the real event. At least, that's how I'm inclined to interpret the possibilities -- but I haven't tried it yet.

Those readers with obedience-trained dogs -- try it! Leave me a comment letting me know how it turned out!


  1. Can't say a thing about dogs yet, but both my kids did this with mirrors. They checked the back to see where the person was. Where this puts their intelligences in reference to dogs and the rest of the human race, I really can't say.

  2. We've experienced the same kind of behaviors you describe in your shepherds with our golden retrievers. Things like regular "check ins" in the review mirror, mirrors at our neighbors house and the full length mirror in our bedroom.
    Our dogs come into the bedroom when one or both of us is getting ready to go out, checking on progress and to determine if they're likely to be going with us or not. They try really hard to establish eye contact in the mirror, and when they succeed, strive to maintain it, wag tails--- anything they seem to think will increase their odds of going with us. They will follow it up with coming to us and looking at us directly and in the mirror.
    Sawyer, our oldest dog and I, encountered a bear at our door and while he barked and dodged at the the bear, I backed away slowly, calling him in a deep, loud voice. When over half-way to the car, I yelled for Sawyer to come and made a dash for it. Sawyer came up close behind and we piled into the front seats as fast as we could. Of course, I immediately checked the review mirror to see what the bear was doing, and to my surprise, so did Sawyer--- simultaneously! We both watched in the mirror until the bear disappeared from view, at which time we looked at each other in, dare I say, relief!