A Dog's World

Are dogs self-aware? New study reveals what canines think

Dogs likely understand "the consequences of their own actions."

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The field of dog behavioral studies has exploded in recent years. Scientists have unpacked everything from the best way to train your pooch to how dogs learn words (spoiler: just like babies).

But dog researchers are just getting started. A study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports suggests dogs — much like humans — experience an important manifestation of self-representation: body awareness.

Some background — Self-representation is the somewhat abstract concept centering around the image that we hold of ourselves in our own mind.

Self-representation involves the construction of one's own identity, which you do every time you take a selfie.

A dog standing at a window. The dog study explores body awareness, which involves the body's position, especially as it relates to the surrounding environment.Shutterstock

But there's a more basic aspect of self-representation — "body awareness" or the recognition of the body's position, especially as it relates to the surrounding environment. Human babies as young as five months old have been able to recognize their own moving legs on video footage, for example.

Self-representation has long been seen as a fairly distinct human trait, but scientists question whether or not it can manifest in animals through body awareness.

Researchers have tried exploring the idea of body awareness in elephants, but unaccounted factors — such as the elephant's overpowering strength — prevented scientists from yielding full answers.

Given dogs' close proximity to humans, the researchers in this study wanted to explore the concept of body awareness in man's best friend.

"Self-awareness is a rather poorly investigated area of dog cognition," co-author Péter Pongrácz tells Inverse. Pongrácz is a researcher associated with Eötvöz Loránd University in Hungary.

Actual footage of the experimental conditions that were included in the research. Each scene is preceded by a short description of the experimental condition. Credit: Rita Lenkei

How they did it — Researchers placed dogs on a small mat to test their ability to comprehend body awareness.

"Body awareness is a mental capacity to organize someone's action by taking in consideration their own body 'exists,'" Pongrácz says.

"Our test put dogs into a situation where they could solve a task only if they removed themselves from a mat, because otherwise by standing on the mat, they would not be able to pick up a toy that was attached to the mat."

The experimenter stood to one side of the mat, and the dog's owner stood to another side. The dog's owner would issue commands to the dog to bring certain objects that the researcher placed either on the ground or on the mat.

"Body awareness is a mental capacity to organize someone's action by taking in consideration their the own body 'exists.'"

Out of 54 adult dogs selected, 32 passed preliminary tests the scientists implemented to rule out pups that could affect the accuracy of the findings, such as those dogs that experienced sensitivity to the movement of the mat.

For the dogs included in the study, researchers implemented several tests, two of which were performed specifically to understand dogs' knowledge of body awareness.

In the first, the researchers placed the dogs in the 'testing condition,' which entailed attaching a knotted ball to the mat. Since the ball was attached to the mat, the dogs would be unable to bring the object to its owner unless they got off the mat. The dogs realized this dilemma and quickly got off the mat.

In the second, they created a control experiment by attaching the object to the ground underneath the mat. Basically, the researchers were asking if the dogs understood the difference between there is an obstacle versus my body is an obstacle — a key factor in body awareness.

When the ball was attached to the ground, the dogs left the mat later and less frequently, suggested that the dogs recognized when their body was — or wasn't an obstacle.

A Sheltie, sitting on the mat, is awaiting for the owner's command. The toy, attached to the mat, is in front of the dogRita Lenkei

What's new — The dogs in the study quickly realized that their bodies were an "obstacle" to retrieving the object when it was attached to the mat.

The dogs, therefore, quickly got off the mat and delivered the object to their owner, as commanded.

"Based on our results even during their first attempt they left the mat significantly sooner and more likely when it was needed to solve the task, compared to when, for instance, the ball was anchored to the ground," Pongrácz explained in a statement.

The team suggests their findings are proof of dogs' capacity for body awareness, writing:

"We argue that dogs’ response in the main test can be explained based on their body awareness and the understanding of the consequences of their own actions."

According to the researchers, this study provides "the first convincing evidence of body awareness through the understanding of the consequence of own actions in a species where previously no higher-order self-representation capacity was found."

Why it matters — If dogs possess this degree of self-awareness, then they might be able to mentally process their own actions and their consequences, and "separate it from other external stimuli," the research team writes.

But whether or not body awareness is something most animals possess remains to be seen. Very few species have been tested, Pongrácz says. He does, however, have a hypothesis.

"Based on our theory that considers the individual modules of self-representation as adaptations to certain ecologically relevant problems, I would dare to predict that any species that has a complex central nervous system and a relatively large body – plus moves rather fast and in a complex environment — should have the capacity for body awareness."

What's next — The researchers believe their findings can help establish best practices for scientists conducting similar 'self-representation' or 'body awareness' studies regarding other animals — not just dogs.

They recommend two key steps.

  • Establish a concrete understanding of the animal's evolutionary history before designing cognitive tests.
  • Conduct multiple, varied experiments to test out the different ways that animals self-represent.

Ultimately, the researchers propose more bottom-up, innovative methods to figure out how animals perceive their relationship to the surrounding environment.

Abstract: Mental representations of one’s own body provide useful reference when negotiating physical environmental challenges. Body-awareness is a neuro-ontogenetic precursor for higher order self-representation, but there is a lack of an ecologically valid experimental approach to it among nonhuman species. We tested dogs (N = 32) in the ‘body as an obstacle’ task. They had to pick up and give an object to their owner, whilst standing on a small mat. In the test condition we attached the object to the mat, thus the dogs had to leave the mat because otherwise they could not lift the object. Dogs came off the mat more frequently and sooner in the test condition, than in the main control condition, where the object was attached to the ground. This is the first convincing evidence of body awareness through the understanding of the consequence of own actions in a species where previously no higher-order self-representation capacity was found. We urge for an ecologically valid approach, and following of bottom-up methods, in studying modularly constructed self-representation.
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