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Is Your Dog Optimistic or Pessimistic?

By Linda Cole

My dog Keikei smiles all the time, except when she's begging for her CANIDAE TidNips™ treats. Then she has the most pathetic, pleading eyes I've ever seen! In general, she's a happy dog. I would say she's a pretty positive little girl. New research claims dogs can be optimistic or pessimistic, and that if a dog shows separation anxiety, they are also showing pessimistic tendencies. According to the research, if your dog frantically barks as you drive off, destroys furniture, chews up socks and decorates your door with scratch marks, they are pessimistic. A research team from the University of Bristol in England came to this conclusion after testing 24 dogs to see how they would react to a bowl full of food placed in a controlled positive position, and an empty bowl in a negative position.

The study was conducted with shelter dogs. Each dog was taken into a room with a researcher where the person played and talked to the dog for 20 minutes. The next day, the person stayed for five minutes and then left the dog alone. They wanted to test the dogs for signs of separation anxiety.

The next step was to train the dogs that a bowl sitting on one side of the room would always have food in it, and if it was placed on the other side of the room it would be empty. Then they put the food bowl on the floor between the “positive” and “negative” locations. The dogs that ran to the bowl sitting in the neutral position and checked to see if there was food in it were said to be positive.

A dog that went to the bowl acting like it didn't matter because it was probably empty was classified as pessimistic. These were the same dogs that had shown separation anxiety behavior in their test with the researchers interacting with them.

It's an interesting study, and if there is a correlation between pessimism and anxiety behaviors in dogs, this simple test could help pet owners diagnosis a destructive behavioral problem. It could also help shelters find suitable homes for dogs that may have a pessimistic attitude.

On the other hand, placing a pessimistic label on a dog just doesn't seem right. Dogs learn what we teach them, and they learn how to get our attention and get what they want in some pretty creative ways. Separation anxiety is a behavioral problem that can and should be dealt with by the dog's owner. Classifying a dog as being pessimistic because he shows tendencies of missing his owner, could cause someone to not seek help for their dog if they think the dog is just displaying a negative attitude.

What bothers me about the study is that they used dogs from shelters. When the researchers spent time with each dog and then left to see if they showed separation anxiety, one thing I thought about was that these dogs may not have had a lot of interaction with humans. There had been no bond formed between the researchers and the shelter dogs. Plus, they were out of their cages in a strange environment, and we don't know what their temperament was like before they became shelter dogs. To me, the dogs' reactions could have been disappointment at being left alone more than separation anxiety.

There are critics to this study who are skeptical about using the “food bowl test” as a means to determine if a dog is optimistic or pessimistic. Instead of using human emotions, some researchers would use words like exploratory or inquisitive to explain why each dog reacted the way they did. I would have to put myself in this group. I do think dogs show amazing human qualities at times and they do show emotions, but I'm not convinced this simple test proves a dog's behavior as being positive or negative.

There is no doubt for any owner who’s had to deal with a dog showing separation anxiety, that the dog is acting in a neurotic way and it's not healthy for him. Separation anxiety is a behavioral issue that can be corrected. Change the dog's behavior and you change his outlook to one that is balanced with a healthy view of life.

Dogs are just like us and can develop bad habits that can get them into trouble. For further reading on canine behavior issues, check out “Breaking Your Dog’s Bad Habits” and “Is it Separation Anxiety or Something Else?

Photo by Janne Moren

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