How Sentient Are Dogs? Are They As Sentient As We Are?

Smart dog with glasses reading a book on sofa

(Picture Credit: Christina Reichl Photography/Getty Images)

You might consider your dog to be an especially clever and smart creature. But have you ever found yourself wondering how conscious and self-aware your dog is? Are dogs highly sentient?

Well, the short answer is maybe. You probably feel like your dog is at least as sentient as some humans, but there’s science on both sides of the argument that dogs are highly sentient creatures.

Here’s what you need to know about whether dogs are as sentient as we are.

The Case That Dogs Might Be As Sentient As Humans

According to a study carried out by the neuroeconomics professor and author Gregory Berns, there is evidence to suggest that dogs are self-aware.

After training a selection of dogs to remain still so that they could undergo an MRI scan, Berns concluded that our canine friends are able to experience a similar level of consciousness and emotions to humans. The dogs involved in the study were not restrained or placed under any sedatives.

Berns found that dogs can feel positive emotions just like a small child would. He also used this to conclude that his research should change the way we train and interact with dogs.

“The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child,” wrote Berns in an opinion piece in the New York Times following his study. “And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.”

The Case Against Dogs Being Highly Sentient

Pet dog working comfortably from home using a laptop

(Picture Credit: Ivan Pantic/Getty Images)

Dogs may have the ability to feel emotions similarly to the way we do. But humans have a level of sentience that not many other species share in the form of self-awareness. Are dogs as self-aware as we are?

Balancing out Berns’s study, dogs have traditionally failed at the standard psychological test for self-awareness. The test, originally developed by Gordon Gallup, involves watching to see if an animal can recognize itself in a mirror.

After researching a range of animals, Gallup found that chimpanzees, magpies, and dolphins were among the animals that could recognize their own reflections, but that dogs and gorillas did not.

One theory about why dogs fail at the mirror test is that they’re animals that rely heavily on their senses of smell and hearing.

Looking into the reasons why dogs might seem smart but possibly not sentient, Psychology Today reasoned, “Much as we might wish to believe that man’s best friend is self-aware, there is no good supportive evidence as yet, although this may reflect problems with the tests. At this point, all we can claim is that domestic dogs are almost incredibly well attuned to the niche of serving humans.”

Do you think your dog is sentient? Have you ever tried to carry out the mirror test with your dog? Let us know in the comments section below!