If you read any of my blogs, you know that I have two doggie girls. They are both Sheltie mixes and are physically similar for the most part. That’s as far as the similarity goes, though. I ran across an interesting article in Science Daly about whether or not dogs are optimistic or pessimistic. This article, Dogs Can Be Pessimists, Too, states, “In fact some dogs are distinctly more pessimistic than others, research from the University of Sydney shows”.
According to Dr. Melissa Starling, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science, whose PhD research findings are published in PLOS One, she has devised a method to determine the positive and negative emotional states of dogs in an objective and non-invasive manner. Dogs were presented with two tones which were two octaves apart and these tones were associated with whether or not they would get a preferred reward. One sound dispensed the prefered treat of milk and the other dispensed the same amount of water. After that distinction was learned, ambiguous tones were presented. According to Dr. Starling, “If dogs respond after ambiguous tones, it shows that they expect good things will happen to them, and they are called optimistic. They can show how optimistic they are by which tones they respond to. A very optimistic dog may even respond to tones that sound more like those played before water is offered.”
According to the research, more optimistic dogs were found than pessimistic. Dr. Starling cautions that these traits can not be generalized to the greater dog population, but it does have implications for guide/service dogs and police/drug dogs. It will also help kennels and dog behaviorists in providing care and instruction to dogs. An optimistic dog expects more good things to happen than bad things. Setbacks do not discourage an optimistic dog like they would discourage a pessimist. If a dog has a pessimistic personality, “he expects fewer good things to happen and more bad things. This may make him cautious and risk averse. He may readily give up when things don’t go his way, because minor setbacks distress him. He may not be unhappy per se, but he is likely to be most content with the status quo and need some encouragement to try new things.”
You might wonder, “So what?” Well, there are implications for determining the suitability of service dogs. Pessimistic dogs are more cautious which may make them better guide dogs – they will not rush pell-mell into potential dangers like a “gung-ho” personality might do. On the flip side, an optimistic dog who is not easily discouraged and therefore more persistent would be better at seeking out drugs or bombs.
According to the article, “This research has the potential to completely remodel how animal welfare is assessed. If we know how optimistic or pessimistic an animal usually is, it’s possible to track changes in that optimism that will indicate when it is in a more positive or negative emotional state than usual,” said Dr Starling.
“The remarkable power of this is the opportunity to essentially ask a dog ‘How are you feeling?’ and get an answer. It could be used to monitor their welfare in any environment, to assess how effective enrichment activities might be in improving welfare, and pinpoint exactly what a dog finds emotionally distressing.”
Immediately, I could identify my dogs in terms of these two categories. Phaedra has been a serious, cautious, hyper-alert dog from puppyhood. It has taken many years of work to help her be less suspicious of her environment and of the behaviors of people. Her Sheltie/Border Collie mix is apparent in how she responds to us if she thinks something is the matter or alarming. She’s always the first one of us to recognize that there has been a change in our environment. Her sensitivity is helpful for us, but the stress it puts on her is serious. Zoe, our Sheltie/Rat Terrier, has that terrier personality of enthusiasm for EVERYTHING! She never stops, expects that perfect strangers will play with her, and never gets discouraged when her desires aren’t immediately met!
Last night, we discussed this article with our “Cat friends” and they talked about the difference between their two Himalayan brothers. They have been parents of these two boys since the cats were eight weeks old. Each was raised in the very same manner, yet both have very distinctive personalities. Mischief is adventurous, outgoing, and has always expected and demanded that people like him. Moonshadow, on the other hand, hangs back when visitors enter his house, doesn’t jump into the lap of strangers, and is a one man cat. He doesn’t try things out on his own like Mischief does. The consensus was that Mischief is the optimist and Moonshadow is the pessimist.
I believe that knowing these characteristics can be helpful in many ways. The most important consideration for me is how I will look at situations and what I will expect the reactions of my dogs to be. I may be able to make the lives of Phaedra and Zoe more fun, less stressful, and better!
Please give the article in Science Daily a read. It is interesting and informative. (University of Sydney. “Dogs can be pessimists, too.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 September 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/09/140918101633.htm>.)