Are dogs self-aware? Study shows a striking similarity to human cognition

I boop, therefore I am.

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1903:  C.M. Coolidge created at the turn of the century what would become a la...
Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Getty Images

When you call your dog your baby, it’s less of an exaggeration than you might think. Dogs are cognitively very similar to toddlers and learn in similar ways. Earlier this year, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests another way dogs’ mental abilities mirror those of humans — and hints at a critical mind-body connection.

The discovery — The paper lays out evidence that dogs have self-awareness in the form of body awareness. This abstract notion involves the construction of one’s identity.

“Body awareness is a mental capacity to organize someone’s action by taking in consideration their own body ‘exists,’” co-author Péter Pongrácz, a researcher associated with Eötvöz Loránd University in Hungary, told Inverse at the time.

INVERSE is counting down the 20 science discoveries that made us say “WTF” in 2021. This is #10. See the full list here.

Why it matters — The famous phrase — I think therefore I am — encapsulates the ideas of ontology, which deals with the nature of being. Two ontological questions were raised in this study: How does one conceive of the self? And how does the self exist within our flesh costume?

French philosopher Renée Descartes coined the phrase “I think therefore I am.”

Pictures from History/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Or more basically, how do we know that we identify with our body, situated within its environment? In humans, this cognitive ability is seen in children as young as five months, who appear to be aware they are moving their own legs. But self-representation and body awareness in animals remains a mystery for scientists.

“Self-awareness is a rather poorly investigated area of dog cognition,” Pongrácz says.

How they did it — In the study, he and his team started by placing dogs on a small mat. On one side of the mat was the experimenter, and on the other side was the dog’s owner. The owner commanded the dog to retrieve particular objects that the researcher had previously set either on, off, or attached to the mat.

Two tests within this experiment specifically tested dogs’ knowledge of body awareness.

Test One: The first test involved instructing the dog to retrieve a ball attached to the mat. The dogs had to realize that in order to fulfill this wish they had to leave the mat.

Test Two: The second test involved attaching the object to the ground underneath the mat instead.

How much do dogs know, really?


These two tests required the dogs to suss out a key distinction in body awareness: Is there an obstacle blocking the object I want, or is my body the obstacle?

In the latter test, the dogs left the mat later and less frequently, indicating that perhaps the dogs could tell when their body was or was not interfering with their fetch mission.

What’s next — The team argues that their findings prove dogs have the capacity for body awareness. If this is true, it implies dogs may be capable of other more complex mental processes, such as understanding actions have consequences. So when your dog raids the trash and then comes to you looking sheepish and trying to make nice, perhaps it is less coincidental than you think.

While very few species have been tested for body awareness, Pongrácz has a bold theory: It’s possible 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.”

Which begs a whole new set of questions: Are horses also self-aware? Are elephants? Humans may not be so special as we think.

INVERSE is counting down the 20 science discoveries that made us say “WTF” in 2021. This is #10. Read the original story here.

Related Tags