Are Dogs Conscious? 


When a butterfly lands on your sleeve, you stop to admire the colors and beauty.  When a puppy toddles over to sniff your hand, you talk to it and try to entice the puppy closer.  By choosing to engage the puppy but not the butterfly, people acknowledge that dogs make choices in their interactions.  People are firm in their belief that humans are capable of self-awareness and have motives and desires.  Recently, scientists have begun to explore whether animals are also capable of these abilities.

When scientists discuss these ideas, there is often no agreement on how to define consciousness or what it means.  Only recently have studies adapted to test organisms other than humans for this ability.  These tests have led scientists to believe animals, such as dogs, could be conscious, and it is believed this realization should be reflected in training styles.  Consciousness can be defined as an organism having motives and desires based on self-awareness, and it is not widely accepted.

The argument for or against consciousness in dogs is important for dog behaviorists.  When developing a working relationship with a dog, considering the extent a dog can make a choice when given options should influence the learning style.  Thinking of a dog as a partner instead of a mindless machine enriches everyone in the process.

What Is Consciousness?

In 2012, a group of scientists gathered together and signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, an agreement from experts in a variety of fields about consciousness (Low, et al., 2012).  It announced the scientific field of consciousness in humans and animals was rapidly expanding, and that the raw materials to enable consciousness could be found in animals other than humans.  In fact, it goes on to acknowledge that consciousness has already been observed in animals under certain circumstances.

Ethologists, or scientists who study animal behavior, can agree that consciousness in animals can be defined as a state of self-awareness, or knowledge of one’s own motives and desires.  The butterfly might have landed on your sleeve because it was the same color of a bluebell flower, but it was acting on instinct instead of a conscious choice.  Most scientists believe, however, that puppies choose to approach humans in a social gesture not based wholly on instinct but with motive to socialize.  While difficult to agree on or define, animal consciousness is subject to hot debate at the moment (Allen & Bekoff, 2007).

The Test for Self-Awareness:

There is an old comic where a goldfish, a penguin, an elephant, a monkey, a dog and a seal are standing before an official who says, “For a fair selection, everybody has to take the same exam; please climb that tree!”  It is a joke about testing standards favoring one type of test-taker, which results in inaccurate test results.  The same joke can be made about testing consciousness in animals, who have been tested for self-awareness the same way human babies are tested.  These has left many intelligent animals out of the conversation of consciousness since the beginning and have only recently been overhauled to account for natural attributes.

One classic example of this is the mirror test, used in child development to determine the age when tiny humans can tell a reflection is an image of themselves and not a stranger.  A red dot is applied to the body, and babies pass the test (usually around two years of age) by trying to touch the dot on their body instead of on the mirror image (Crew, 2015).  With the exception of great apes, dolphins, orcas, rhesus macaques, magpies and one elephant, most animals fail.  Dogs have traditionally failed this test as well, but one scientist wondered if a dog’s famously poor eyesight was to blame.  That is when Marc Bekoff invented the pee test.

Dogs did not recognize themselves in mirrors, but they did recognize their own urine when marking a territory.  Bekoff measured the amount of time dogs spent smelling their own urine marking as opposed to a foreign contribution.  The result was dogs spending a shorter time investigating their own scent, mostly likely since they recognize it as their own.  The dogs also chose not to remark their own spot, indicating they recognized themselves and did not repeat the work.

What Self-Awareness Means in Training?

If a dog behaviorist accepts the research that dogs are conscious, how should that reflect on their learning style?  The key is to take a look at the current trend in behavior training for dogs.  Often new pet owners arrive to a puppy training class and are taught training methods that mimic programming.  If the pet parent does A, the puppy will do B.  If the puppy did not perform B, then the parent got A wrong.  This approach often ignores the puppy having motives and desires that conflict with learning the class curriculum.

The importance of recognizing consciousness in pets directly relates to how it relates to learning styles.  If pet trainers simply approach their dog with a programmable frame of mind without taking into account independent thought, their pet will most likely learn at a slower pace than possible and not be as eager to work together.  It is important to take into account both personality type, past histories to find the best training environment, and to find the best motivator in training.   This motivates both owner and dog to a happy working bond.

Allen, C., & Bekoff, M. (2007, September). Animal Minds, Cognitive Ethology, and Ethics. Retrieved February 4, 2018, from

Crew, B. (2015, December 10). Dogs Show Signs of Self-Consciousness in New 'Sniff Test'. Retrieved February 04, 2018, from

Low, P. (2012, July 7). The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness (J. Panksepp, D. Reiss, D. Edelman, B. Van Swinderen, P. Low, & C. Koch, Eds.). Retrieved February 4, 2018, from


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