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Can Dogs Be Pessimists?

by Nicole Pajer



Is your dog’s water bowl half full or half empty? That may depend entirely on his mentality. 


According to a study by the University of Sydney, dogs can show signs of being optimists or pessimists. And, as study leader Dr. Melissa Starling with USYD’s Faculty of Veterinary Science explains, this could go a long way in helping humans to understand just what is going on inside the minds of their furry companions.


The Experiment: Milk vs. Water


To conduct the research, Starling and her team ran a group of dogs though a cognitive bias test to see if they ranked on more of a pessimistic or optimistic spectrum. The team taught a group of dogs to touch a target that would spurt out a water or milk reward. Specific tones were assigned to each stimulus, with one being paired to milk and another coinciding with the release of water.


“The machine plays a tone and if it’s a water tone, the dogs don’t touch the target and if it’s a milk tone, they do touch the target and then they get some milk. That’s what we call a ‘Go or No Go’ approach,” Starling explains. 


Once the dogs learned the difference between a milk tone and a water tone, the real study began. Starling eventually gave the dogs new tones that were in between the two they had already learned.


“So what we’re trying to do is give them ambiguous signals and say, ‘This tone kind of sounds a little bit like milk but not entirely like milk so how would you interpret that?’” says Starling. “If they think it sounded near enough to milk, then they touch the target. And if they think it sounded like water, then they don’t touch it.” 


Starling was able to deduce whether a dog was more of an optimist or pessimist based on their reactions to the ambiguous tones. “The interesting point is when they decide if the unclear tones were more accurate to be water or milk,” she explains. And this type of response seemed to vary from dog to dog.


Some dogs heard the uncategorized tones and kept hitting the target, even after continuously having water spout out, while others were too distraught to continue.


“The optimistic dogs would keep jumping up and giving things a try, whereas the pessimistic dogs were more risk adverse and didn’t really want to take chances. They’d lick their lips, look away from the target, and in some cases even go lie down on their beds to pout instead of further participating.” 


The experiment started with 40 dogs and was eventually whittled down to 20 that made it through. “We lost a few throughout the various stages,” says Starling.


Some dogs didn’t like milk and others didn’t have the persistence for learning the difference between the two tones. The study was done in rounds, with six dogs going through at a time over a course of two weeks. At the end of her research, Starling noticed six dogs were optimists, six were pessimists, and the others were spread pretty evenly across the spectrum.


Environment Dictates Dog’s Outlook


Starling’s theory is that the dog’s personality rankings had a lot to do with their backgrounds. Several of the optimistic dogs, for instance, were pets of professional trainers.


“These dogs were probably getting a lot of stimulation at home with clicker training and reinforcement,” she says. And a lot of the pessimists, on the other hand, were recruited from a service dog training program. 


Julie Hecht, canine researcher and Animal Behavior PhD student at The Graduate Center, CUNY, agrees with the theory that a dog having an optimistic or pessimistic approach tends to be environmentally dependent.


“If you’re a dog in a puppy mill, for instance, you’re having a pretty crappy life and may express a more pessimistic view, but that doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily a pessimistic individual,” says Hecht. “If you move to a different environment, then you learn that people are safe, people are enjoyable, and you could change your outlook.”


Pessimistic vs. Optimistic Dog Traits 


Though Starling's findings are still preliminary, she was able to deduce a description of the characteristics she realized in both pessimistic and optimistic dogs. She also compiled some tips for dog owners on how this knowledge could benefit them going forward: 


Traits of optimistic dogs: “If I saw a dog that was really outgoing and very interested in the world — very exploratory, looking for rewards everywhere, and quite opportunistic — I would think of that dog as probably an optimistic dog,” she explains. “Persistence really comes into it as well because these optimistic dogs just keep trying, which is nice when you’re clicker training a dog because they will keep coming up with new things and they aren’t really concerned that they won’t get a click. It also means that later on, however, that when you put the clicker down, they still are hunting around for things to do and still trying things out.”


Traits of pessimistic dogs: “And on the other scale, if we are looking at a dog that is more risk averse — he doesn’t like to take risks, he doesn’t like to go far from his owner when he’s out with them, he’s probably a little bit sedate maybe, and it might take a bit of coaxing to get them to try new things — that is the kind of thing I associate with a pessimistic dog. And just like in the experiment, this may show up in training. If they are not getting a really high reward rate and feeling really successful, they might be particularly sensitive and become easily discouraged.”


What Can We Learn? 


According to Starling, being able to identify a dog as pessimistic or optimistic may help humans enrich their relationships with their pets by realizing that different dogs need different types of reinforcement.


If you think you have a risk averse, pessimistic dog, for instance, Starling recommends that you be patient with him.


“They might need a little bit more encouragement than other dogs and a little bit more hand holding,” she explains. “These dogs prefer you to give them lots of feedback and added reinforcement.”


Owners of optimistic dogs, on the other hand, are urged to find ways to keep their pups from reinforcing themselves.


“It’s about managing their environment to make sure that they can’t get into trouble, making sure that they can’t find things on coffee tables and up on the counters,” says Starling. “You have to make sure that you are not leaving them in voids where they can just do whatever they want because you haven’t told them what you want them to do.” 


This research is just the tip of the iceberg for Starling. Going forward, she would love to be able to develop more clear-cut tests that humans can run on their dogs to identify their emotional mindset. This knowledge could not only strengthen the bond between dog and owner, but may also help with selecting a dog for a specific task. A more pessimistic dog, for example, might make a better service dog.


“These dogs respond more quickly to the correction of unwanted behaviors and are not out in the world thinking that everything is an opportunity, like optimistic dogs do,” she says. And if you’re looking for a dog companion to compete in sports, that’s where an optimistic dog that is willing to try anything would likely come into play. 


What people can really take away from the study, says Hecht, is the fact that dogs are emotional beings and there are differences in how they view stimuli in their environments.


"This is just another tool to investigate how dogs view the world, on an individual basis," she says.



Image: angela n. / Flickr



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