The researchers used 24 shelter dogs and started by measuring whether each dog suffered from separation anxiety. To do this, a researcher played with a dog for 20 minutes in a designated room. The next day, the dog was taken to the same room, played with for a few minutes, then left alone for five minutes. The dog’s behavior during those five minutes was analyzed and graded as a “separation anxiety score”.
A few days after the test, the researchers conducted another experiment to assess whether each dog had a pessimist or optimist outlook. In order to achieve this, they trained the dogs to learn that when in a given room, a food bowl placed at the very left of the room always had a treat in it, and a food bowl placed at the very right or the room never had a treat in it. Once the dogs learned this, the researchers placed a food bowl right in the middle of the room. Presumably, dogs that ran fast to see if this new bowl has a treat in it were anticipating that it had food in it and were considered to be “optimistic”, whereas dogs who either slowly made their way over or didn’t bother to check it out were considered to be “pessimistic”. It’s kind of a dog version of the glass half-full or half-empty paradigm.
The relevant finding of this article is that the researchers found that dogs who experienced separation anxiety were more likely to be of the “pessimistic” kind. Pessimism is thought to be related to negative moods, and knowing this may help in figuring out how to avoid chewed-on Jimmy Choo’s.
While I thought the study was quirky and interesting, I found it a bit of a stretch to label these dogs as optimistic or pessimistic using such a simple experiment. The researchers themselves owned up to this by saying that “the conscious experience of such a state [optimistic/pessimistic] cannot be known for sure”. When I read the article, I thought maybe the dogs who went for the food bowl in the middle were just more curious than others, and I’m not sure how curiosity relates to optimism (for example, I consider myself to be quite curious, but not necessarily optimistic: I browse the Jimmy Choo website to see what the new styles are, but I don’t envision ever owning a pair). As well, I thought the measure for separation anxiety was a bit weak. While it’s a known experiment, it’s not immediately obvious to me that the behavior of these pound dogs relates to the behaviors you would observe in dogs with a stable home.
Still, it’s a good reminder to keep our pets as happy as possible, especially during the holidays when routines are broken and moods are uneven.
Reference: Dogs showing separation-related behaviour exhibit a “pessimistic” cognitive bias (2010) Mendl M. et al. Current Biology, 20(19):R839-40.