Dogs demonstrate body awareness for first time in chew-toy experiment

February 18, 2021

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

Dogs appear to express body awareness, which is fundamental to understanding one's own conscious existence, and the researchers behind the novel finding suggest this physical perception could point to the animal's capacity for other advanced forms of thought, too.

Rita Lenkei, a researcher from the department of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, led a team hoping to discern whether a nonhuman species can grasp the notion of its own tangible being. Her paper, published Thursday in Scientific Reports, is the first to show that dogs can express true awareness of their own bodies and the space they occupy.

This ability is referred to as the physical aspect of the branch of cognition called higher-order self-representation, which refers to the overall understanding and display of one's conscious existence.

Lenkei's work caps off 25 years of dog-behavior studies that have offered little to no proof that the animals have any version of higher-order self-representation. The only other relevant study is the outdated mirror test conducted with elephants, which, contrary to Lenkei's findings, showed that nonhumans do not possess this self-awareness.

“When we are talking about cognitive capacities, they are usually divided into physical and social problem-solving,” Lenkei told The Academic Times. “Self-representation, or in other words, having information about the self in the mental model, is something different.”

Understanding dogs’ physical awareness is an important gateway to learning about their self-representation, which involves social as well as physical aspects, Lenkei says. If dogs can demonstrate the latter, it indicates they have some form of self-representation — and could have the potential to demonstrate the social aspects as well.

For the experiment, the team first recruited 54 adult dogs of varying breeds and sex, which were found through social media or their participation in professional obedience competitions. The subjects were presented with a setup composed of familiar elements: a little toy, a small outdoor mat and their beloved owner. 

Each dog was then sat on the mat and asked to hand the toy to their owner — the catch being that the toy was also on the mat, essentially underneath the dog, so that the dog’s body blocked it from picking up the object. To succeed, the dog had to exhibit body awareness: It would have to comprehend that its own body was negatively impacting its ability to do the task, and act accordingly. This would entail realizing and digesting that its body was an impediment, stepping off the mat, and only then attempting to pick up the toy again.

“I must say that even I was surprised by the heterogeneity of our sample; we even tested a dachshund. In that case, we allowed the owner to bend a bit to catch the object,” Lenkei said, underscoring that the positive results of the test were consistent among all breeds.

To prevent any confounders, the experiment setup was manipulated in a few different ways and re-tested before the researchers came to a conclusion, to ensure the dogs that passed the first test had true body awareness. For example, one variation attached a rope to the mat. The experimenter gently pulled the rope to see if the dog left the mat. Dogs that exhibited this behavior were excluded from the study, because that meant they may have stepped off the mat in the original test because they were sensitive to the mat, not due to their body awareness.

“It seems that dogs hold at least some basic information about their own body, and also about its relation to the environment,” Lenkei explained. “This might be an important capacity for [intelligence] because being aware of the consequences of one’s own actions and own presence makes it easier to react to environmental challenges in a flexible way.”

Based on the results of the study, Lenkei also proposed that cognition, even for humans, could be formed through the constantly evolving thoughts of species as they are exposed to environmental stimuli, rather than purely by a purely biological force such as genetics. This is in line with the theory that cognitive development is driven by environmental factors rather than just biology alone.

“It nicely strengthens the validity of our ecology-based approach, meaning body awareness is likely an adaptation for an intelligent, social, large-bodied, fast-moving species that lives in a complex environment,” Lenkei said.

The paper suggests scientists should use the ecological background of a species as foundation for cognitive studies instead of taking a top-down approach, because the latter may not be telling the whole story. Lenkei added that this study’s evidence, in particular, is a great starting point for such research because of the parallels humans have with the widely adored canine creatures.

“They have a unique position in the animal kingdom, in the sense that they evolved and live beside us, showing a perfect adaptation to the socio-cognitive challenges of the human social environment," she said. “It also means that they face the same problems every day as humans, including the orientation in our anthropogenic environment.”

The paper, "Dogs (Canis familiaris) recognize their own body as a physical obstacle," was published Feb. 18 in Scientific Reports. It was authored by Rita Lenkei, Tamás Faragó, Borbála Zsilák and Péter Pongrácz, Eötvös Loránd University.

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