Dogs can understand how their body relates to the world around them, including when it gets in the way, researchers have found. What might seem obvious to us is a form of self-representation – thought to be rare among animals – and a step towards consciousness.
"Dogs are perfect subjects for the investigation of the self-representation related abilities as we share our anthropogenic physical and social environment with them,” Rita Lenkei, first author of the study and PhD student at Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary, said in a statement. We know dogs have learned a lot from us over the time we have been together, and Lenkei thought body awareness might be on the list.
In Scientific Reports, Lenkei and co-authors define body awareness as “The ability to hold information about one’s own body in mind, as an explicit object, in relation to other objects in the world.”
Psychologists have tested toddlers’ body awareness by having them try to hand a blanket they are sitting on to someone else. The self-representation required to understand that they first need to get off the blanket typically appears at 18-24 months (although anecdotal observations in bars near closing time suggest that alcohol consumption may induce regression).
Since dogs can't hand anyone anything, the team redesigned the test. The researchers attached balls to mats, and had 32 canines skilled in the art of ball return sit on the mat before being asked to bring their humans the ball.
"We developed a more complex method than the original one to make sure that dogs only leave the mat when it was truly necessary.” said senior author Dr Péter Pongrácz. In almost all cases, the dogs worked out what was needed, and were able to deliver the ball. In contrast, only about half the dogs in a control trial – where the ball was fixed to the ground, so leaving the mat was no help – did it anyway. In the control, dogs usually took longer to leave, apparently mostly doing so when they’d given up rather than thinking this was a solution.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the result is that dogs fail the so-called “mirror mark” test, which assesses the capacity to recognize a mirror image. Humans learn this about the same time we realize our bodies can be an obstacle.
Moreover, elephants are the only non-human animals to have previously passed a (scaled-up) version of the body obstacle test. They’re also known for their capacity to pass the mirror mark test, reinforcing the expectation the two go together. The authors argue over-reliance on the mirror mark test has misled animal cognitive scientists as to the diversity in animals’ capabilities.
“Our results support the theory about self-representation as being an array of more or less connected cognitive skills, where the presence or lack of a particular building block may depend on the ecological needs and cognitive complexity of the given species," Lenkei said. In other words; don't assume a species is incapable of performing certain cognitive tasks just because they fail at others, evolution has shaped their abilities as much as their bodies, to suit their niche.