If you think all dogs are cheerful, upbeat and excited about what life has to offer, you’ve either interacted exclusively with optimistic dogs, or you haven’t noticed that some dogs are a little more on the “food bowl half empty” side of the personality spectrum. Not all dogs are quite as happy-go-lucky as we humans generally assume.
The idea of individual personalities in dogs is hardly stop-the-presses news anymore, but studying such differences in dogs is still a fruitful area of research. In a 2014 study published in PLOS, a group of scientists studied judgment bias in dogs to investigate individual tendencies to view the world optimistically or pessimistically.
To study dogs’ expectations of the world, they trained them to associate different sounds with different outcomes. One sound let them know that touching a target would result in receiving the preferred reward of milk. The other sound, two octaves apart from the milk sound, indicated that they would get the less desirable reward of an equal amount of water. The correct response to the water tone was not to touch the target. Once dogs could easily distinguish between these two sounds, the real test of their personalities began.
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Trained dogs were given a tone that was between the two trained tones, and their response was observed. Dogs who reacted to the ambiguous tone by pushing the target in anticipation of milk were considered optimists. They expected good things to happen. Dogs who failed to respond to the ambiguous tone were considered pessimists in that they did not have an expectation of good things. They were not filled with the hopefulness of the optimists in the study. This study allowed researchers to determine whether individual dogs have the expectation of positive outcomes or whether they expect negative outcomes.
Some dogs would respond to ambiguous tones even if they were more similar to the water tone than to the milk tone. These dogs were considered extreme optimists. Overall, researchers found that more dogs were optimists than pessimists. I find that reassuring since it matches the way most of us view dogs.
In another study on optimism in dogs out of the University of Sydney improves on the previous experiment and is applying the work to the selection of service dogs. Led by Dr. Melissa Starling, dogs were taught to touch a target on cue to trigger the release of a liquid. The cue was a sound—one tone that meant touching the target would produce milk and a different tone meant touching the target would result in water. As you can imagine, the dogs were much quicker to interact with the target after the "milk sound."
Once the target behavior was learned, the dogs were presented with ambiguous tones. Those who continued to touch the target at "milk speed" were labeled as optimists, while those who responded with "water speed" were labeled as pessimists. Dr. Starling also looked at the degree of optimism by looking at differences in their response to a range of tones. For instance, a very optimistic dog may touch the target at a quick speed even after a tone that sounds more similar to the water noise.
The research team also found that pessimistic dogs appeared to be more stressed after failing a task than the optimistic ones. This included whining, pacing, and avoiding the task. Optimistic dogs tended to be unfazed by failure and kept trying.
The cool part is that Dr. Starling is now working with Assistance Dogs Australia to see if an optimism test could help in selecting successful training candidates. She believes that this could help determine which dogs will take risks to gain rewards, be more resilient when things don't go their way, and be willing to persist through setbacks.
I can see how this information could be valuable for working dogs and even as a temperament test for future dog sport pups. I can't wait to see the outcome of her continued work with the service dogs.
Do you think your pup is an optimist or a pessimist?