Some dogs are natural pessimists, says study (aww)

Contrary to their reputation for being tail-wagging people-pleasers who are always up for a W-A-L-K, some dogs are apparently real pessimists. Dr Melissa Starling, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, and her team put together a trial where they taught dogs to associate two different sounds with whether they would get milk (woo-hoo!) or water (bummer). Once the dogs understood the link between the specific tones and the reward (or lack of one), the vets then played them a different musical note.

Those that responded positively were labelled optimistic, as they assumed the best. (Some even reacted positively when the sound was more similar to the sound for water – that’s faith for you.) Those that didn’t trust that an unknown noise would be linked to a treat were labelled pessimistic. Overall, there were more optimistic dogs than pessimistic ones in the sample, although this doesn’t necessarily prove that most dogs are optimists. (Although, optimistically, I suspect that they might be.)

The researchers concluded that how the dogs reacted was more about their individual personalities than their breed. They also found that optimistic dogs bounced back better from setbacks, such as failing to correctly complete a task. Pessimistic dogs, on the other hand, are more cautious and give up more easily, often pacing and whining, to boot.

Dr Starling says that knowing what kind of dog you’re dealing with could be helpful for anyone owning or especially working with animals. She thinks this type of testing could help identify which dogs are best suited to becoming police dogs or service animals early in the training process. ‘If we knew how optimistic or pessimistic the best candidates for a working role are, we could test dogs’ optimism early and identify good candidates for training for that role,’ she says. ‘A pessimistic dog that avoids risks would be better as a guide dog while an optimistic, persistent dog would be more suited to detecting drugs or explosives.’

She also said that this type of testing could be a useful way to track dogs’ emotional wellbeing over time. And who knows, maybe in future we’ll even see some kind of doggy therapy to encourage pessimistic pooches to look on the bright side.

Image via Josh’s Flickr.

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Diane Shipley

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