Bowl Half Empty? How to Tell If Your Dog Is a Pessimist

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The author's dog, Lola

The only time my dog’s tail stops wagging is when she’s asleep. She’s a really happy pup, in other words — or at least I thought she was. The lead author of a new study in the journal Current Biology suggests she may have a “negative underlying emotional state.”

According to researchers at the University of Bristol and University of Lincoln in the U.K., dogs that exhibit “separation-related behavior” (SRB) may be inherently pessimistic pooches. This behavior includes barking, destructive chewing and peeing and pooping when left alone. (My dog, Lola, exhibits the second one.) (More on Why Spamming Your Friends With Cute Kitties Is Good Karma)

For the study, researchers observed 24 shelter dogs to determine which ones exhibited SRB. Next, the researchers taught the dogs that a bowl placed on one side of a room would contain food, while a bowl placed on the other side would not. After the pups had that down, the researchers placed a test bowl elsewhere in the room. Dogs that ran to that bowl expecting food were labeled “optimistic”; dogs that ignored the new bowl figuring it wouldn’t contain food were labeled “pessimistic.”

The authors of the study found a correlation between dogs that exhibited SRB and those that were pessimists in the bowl test. In a published interview, Mike Mendl, the study’s lead author said, “Happy people are more likely to judge an ambiguous situation positively. Now it seems that this may also apply to dogs.” The ambiguous situation he referred to was being left alone. Pessimistic dogs, the study says, may view this circumstance as bad and react accordingly, while optimistic dogs may not.

Back to my dog, Lola. When my husband and I first adopted her from a rescue group, we immediately bought a metal crate and began the process of “crate training,” allowing her to be outside her crate only under supervision or if it was time to go for a walk to pee and poop outside. Once she got the hang of that, we left her outside her crate while we were at work. She was free to roam around our apartment all day. (More on Photos: Animals That Can Think)

I’m not sure how much roaming she did in between all the destructive chewing. First, she destroyed her dog bed, ripping it apart and pulling out all the stuffing. Then, she chewed up a corner of our bed’s box spring. Later on, she ate the wooden handles of our antique writing desk. We didn’t worry too much — these were our own possessions, after all, and we wanted to give her time to adjust. Then, she chewed the windowsill. This was actually attached to our rented apartment, so it was cause for concern. But we didn’t react to Lola’s SRB until she took it one step further, literally chewing a hole through the hardwood floor.

After this, we decided we would keep Lola in her crate whenever no one else was home. Many people might think this is cruel, but there are a few mitigating circumstances. One, Lola loves her crate. When we’re home, we leave the crate door open and she frequently saunters in there to curl up and nap, having claimed the space as her “den.” Secondly, when she’s in her crate, Lola is calm and sleeps almost all day. (We know this because we had a brief foray with a pet-cam during the chewing escapades.) Thirdly, we take Lola off leash in a nearby park every morning for at least an hour, so she gets lots of exercise.

But in light of this new study, might my husband and I have missed a clear sign that Lola is just a pessimistic dog? What is pessimism after all? If it’s a sign of unhappiness, what accounts for the constant tail wagging? And what about our successful use of positive reinforcement? We trained Lola to shake on command by giving her a dog biscuit every time she performed. After she learned this trick, we started giving her a biscuit for shaking only occasionally. This didn’t cause her to stop extending her paw for a greeting. On the contrary, every time we ask, “Can you shake, Lola?” she lifts her little white paw upward, eyes glistening in anticipation. That seems like pretty optimistic behavior to me.

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