Figuring out what your dog is thinking: “Does this pee smell funny to you?”

This post is not about asparagus.

One of the neatest thing about being human is that I get to know what it is like to be me. I’m not saying I’m all that, I’m saying that I have consciousness, self-awareness, and that it’s great. For example, I love chocolate cake. Not only am I happy when I eat it, I know that I’m happy when I eat it, and moreover, I know that there’s a me that is happy. There is something that it is like to be me. I can stop, introspect, and think about what I’m thinking right now—which, thanks to that last example, is chocolate cake.

Amoebas don’t get to do this. I doubt an amoeba says to itself, “Damn I’m hungry. I’m going to tuck into the next paramecium I see.” That amoeba exists and eats, but it doesn’t know what it is like to exist or to eat, it doesn’t know that IT is doing the eating and I am pretty sure that it didn’t enjoy doing the eating.

Consciousness, humans have it, and amoebas don’t. But what about other creatures? One way scientists have tried to test whether a creature has consciousness is to see if it recognizes itself in a mirror. Most creatures, including humans less than 18 months old, don’t.

When my cat Hoss jumps up on my bathroom counter while I’m getting ready in the morning, he puffs up, hisses, and arches his back at the sight of his reflection, just like he does when he sees the neighbor’s cat walk by the living room window. While he might have some kind of consciousness, he doesn’t provide evidence of it when he treats his reflection like it’s another cat.

When a chimp sees its reflection, it might initially ask its mirror image to play, but before long you can see a lightbulb go off in that chimp’s eyes as it realizes it’s looking at itself. At this point, chimps start doing things like opening their mouths to check out their molars and pulling their eyelids down to look at the whites of their eyes. My personal favorite is when they turn around to look over their shoulders at their rear ends like they’re trying on jeans in a department store. It seems like these chimps know they’re seeing themselves, and this means they have some idea that they are a self, that they have some sense of being a “me.”

Scientists also perform an experiment called the Mark Test, in which they put dye on a chimp’s forehead and then plunk her back in front of a mirror. When a chimp passes this test she will touch her forehead as if to say, “What the heck is this stuff on me?” Again, there is that word, “me.”

Adult humans, chimps, elephants, magpies, and dolphins have all ‘passed’ the mark test. But not dogs.

Psychologist Andrea Horowitz realized that the mirror and mark tests might not tell us much about dog consciousness because these tests are primarily visual and dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell. So, instead of marking a dog’s head with dye, she had the cool idea of marking a dog’s scent with another scent. In other words, she performed a sort of olfactory mark test.

She exposed a bunch of dogs to four kinds of smells: their urine, an unfamiliar dog’s urine, their urine with another scent added, and that other scent on its own.

She found that of all these scents, dogs were most interested in the smell of their urine with another scent added to it. These dogs paid a lot of attention to the smell of their own “marked” urine.

So, does a dog paying attention to the smell of its ‘marked’ urine, mean the same thing as a chimp paying attention to its marked reflection in a mirror?

The comparison is complicated because while we can observe a chimp try to remove the dye from its face, we can’t observe a dog try to remove the funny smell from its pee.

But even so, and as Horowitz explains in her original publication titled “Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test” her data is

consistent with a thesis that dogs notice their odour when it is changed, and move to more fully examine it. Such behaviour implies a recognition of the odour as being or from themselves.

The neat word in this quote is ‘themselves.” If the dog could talk, it might say, “Hey, this smells like me, but with something different added in.”

We need to be careful not to make too much of a single study. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done on canine consciousness and canine minds.

But I have to admit that I am enthralled by Horowitz’s idea of an olfactory mirror for dogs.

sniff 3Milo the AwesomeDog loves to sniff. He regularly sniffs so vigorously that he has to sneeze out the debris he’s sucked into his nose. I am almost overcome with curiosity about what the movie in his mind must “look like” when instead of being based on sight, it’s based on smell-o-vision. And then Horowitz comes along and uses this smell-o-vision as way to look into what it is like to be him. Milo knows he smells, therefore he is?

 

2 thoughts on “Figuring out what your dog is thinking: “Does this pee smell funny to you?”

  1. I remember reading a Study done decades ago in the 70s I think where scientists took dogs in social groups, so all of the dogs got on well, then removed 1 dog and covered the dog in another scent. When they tried to have that dog rejoin the group, the other dogs no longer could recognize it and then ostracized that dog. Who previously they accepted. I used to joke with students who were feeling conflicted on changing their newly adopted dogs name, that their dog wouldn’t care much if they were called Joe today and harry tomorrow, it’s all a matter of what you condition those words to mean, your dog would care if today they smelled like Joe and tomorrow they smelled like harry though. Then they’d have an identity crisis! Lol.

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