Can dogs be pessimistic?

Half empty, or half full? Discovering if a dog is optimistic or pessimistic can helpful in the context of working and service dogs.

Most of us would suspect our dogs have an optimistic view on life. After all, they seem happy and easy to please.

That’s not always the case, according to a study from the University of Sydney that shows some dogs are distinctly more pessimistic than others. “This research is exciting because it measures positive and negative emotional states in dogs objectively and non-invasively,” says Dr. Melissa Starling, from the Faculty of Veterinary Science.

Her research, published in the journal PLOS One, offers dog owners an insight into the outlook of dogs. According to Dr. Starling, finding out whether a dog is optimistic or pessimistic is helpful in the context of working and service dogs. “It also impacts the animal’s welfare,” she explained.

In the study, dogs were taught to associate two different sounds (two octaves apart) with whether they would get the preferred reward of milk or instead get the same amount of water. Once the dogs learned the discrimination task, they are presented with ambiguous tones.

The dogs show how optimistic they are by which tones they respond to. If dogs respond after ambiguous tones, it shows that they expect good things will happen to them, and they are called optimistic. A very optimistic dog may even respond to tones that sound more like those played before water is offered.

While this study is still in the experimental stage, out of the dogs that were tested so far, the researchers found the majority of dogs were optimistic rather than pessimistic. Dr. Starling noted it is still too early to say if that is true of the general dog population.

According to the study, a dog with an optimistic personality expects more good things to happen, and less bad things. An optimistic dog will take risks and gain access to rewards; he is a dog that tries again despite a negative outcome.

Dogs with pessimistic personalities are cautious when it comes to taking risks; he will give up when things don’t go his way. Researchers found this doesn’t mean a pessimistic dog is an unhappy dog. What it does mean is your pessimistic dog is likely to be content with the status quo, and that he will need some encouragement to try new things.

Sources: University of Sydney, PLOS One