Is Your Dog an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Dogs vary in their view of the world
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2015, Updated July 2016

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.

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.

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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.

What do you think this test would reveal about your dog?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.