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Dogs May Be More Self-Aware Than Experts Thought

In a new study, canines recognized how their bodies took up space and moved to complete a task

The dogs moved off a mat that had a toy attached to it, showing that dogs may understand their body size and where they are in the environment when solving a task. ( Rita Lenkei / ELTE)
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Anecdotally, dogs may not seem very aware of their size and how much room they take up—try sharing your bed with a dog of any shape or size and this becomes clear. Puppies sometimes like to jump at new people, unaware of their increasing strength, and plenty of big dogs insist on being lap dogs well past the puppy stage. So, the results of a new study published last week in Scientific Reports claiming to provide the "the first convincing evidence of body awareness" in dogs may surprise you.

Body awareness is key to establishing self-awareness or self-representation, which means an individual has the capacity not only to perceive themselves but also perceive where they are in space, Yasemin Saplakoglu explains for Live Science. Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest add canines to the list of animals, including humans, that seem to understand how their bodies move through the world around them, reports Carly Cassella for Science Alert.

"Dogs are perfect subjects for the investigation of the self-representation related abilities as we share our anthropogenic physical and social environment with them. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that at least some of its forms might appeared in them, too," says study author Rita Lenkei, a graduate student, to Chrissy Sexton for Earth.com.

Adapting experimental methods from studies of body awareness in elephants and toddlers, the researchers tested 32 dogs of different breeds and sizes on their ability to recognize their body as an obstacle. In the problem-solving experiment, the canines had to grab a toy that was attached to a mat they were sitting on. If the dogs demonstrated body awareness, they knew they needed to get off the mat to complete the task and give the toy to their owners, reports Live Science. The experimental conditions were then compared to control groups in which the toy was attached to the ground or wasn't attached to anything at all, reports Science Alert.

The dogs quickly moved off the mat with a toy attached more often than they did when the toy was stuck to the ground instead.

"When dogs pulled on the toy, it also started to lift the mat — thus the dog felt that the mat was jerking under its paws as it was pulling the toy. In this scenario, the dogs quickly left the mat, usually still holding the toy in their mouth; then they gave it to the owner," says Péter Pongrácz, a biologist at Eötvös Loránd University, to Live Science.

In the past, dogs have been tested for their sense of self-awareness through methods that the researchers thought were not "ecologically relevant." Dogs fail to recognize themselves in the mirror mark test, for example, in which scientists place a visible mark on an animal's face to see whether they will investigate it in a mirror. Other species, like elephants and great apes, are mirror-mark-test masters, Live Science reports.

Although dogs can't identify themselves in the mirror, they still have some level of self-awareness and ace other self-recognition tests. They can recognize their own odor, and recall memories of specific events, Earth.com reports. This past evidence led the researchers to suspect canines show a lower level of self-representation that can only be observed in simpler tests that focus on their body and environment, explains Pongrácz to Catherine Offord in an interview with The Scientist.

"For a dog, being aware of how big is the body, or how the body can be an obstacle, it's reasonable to expect. This is an animal with a complex nervous system, it's an intelligent animal, it's a fast-moving animal. . . . If you think about how dogs eat, you can imagine that a dog often has to hold down a bigger chunk of food, let's say, and use its own body as a counterweight to be able to take off meat from a bone or whatever. So, this is an appropriate context to test this cognitive capacity," Pongrácz tells The Scientist.

About Elizabeth Gamillo
Elizabeth Gamillo

Elizabeth Gamillo is a science journalist based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has written for Science magazine as their 2018 AAAS Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Intern.

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