Dogs that are anxious when left alone also tend to show “pessimistic” like behaviour, according to a new study from the University of Bristol.
Dogs that are anxious when left alone also tend to show “pessimistic” like behaviour, according to a new study from the University of Bristol. Those who see the “bowl-half-empty” are more likely to display separation-related behaviours such as toileting, barking and destroying objects around the home.
The research paper, funded by the RSPCA and published in this month’s edition of Current Biology, claims to provide “an important insight into dogs’ emotions” and “enhance our understanding of why behavioural responses to separation occur”.
Mike Mendl, head of the animal welfare and behaviour research group at the Bristol School of Clinical Veterinary Science, who led the research, said: “We all have a tendency to think that our pets and other animals experience emotions similar to our own, but we have no way of knowing directly because emotions are essentially private. However, we can use findings from human psychology research to develop new ways of measuring animal emotion.
“We know that people’s emotional states affect their judgements and that happy people are more likely to judge an ambiguous situation positively. What our study has shown is that this applies similarly to dogs – that a ‘glass-half-full’ dog is less likely to be anxious when left alone than one with a more ‘pessimistic’ nature.”
In order to study ‘pessimistic’ or ‘optimistic’ decisions, dogs at two UK animal re-homing centres were trained that when a bowl was placed at one location in a room (the ‘positive’ position) it would contain food, but when placed at another location (the ‘negative’ position) it would be empty. The bowl was then placed at ambiguous locations between the positive and negative positions.
Professor Mendl explained: “Dogs that ran fast to these ambiguous locations, as if expecting the positive food reward, were classed as making relatively ‘optimistic’ decisions. Interestingly, these dogs tended to be the ones who also showed least anxiety-like behaviour when left alone for a short time.
“Around half of dogs in the UK may at some point perform separation-related behaviours – toileting, barking and destroying objects around the home – when they’re apart from their owners. Our study suggests that dogs showing these types of behaviour also appear to make more pessimistic judgements generally.”
Samantha Gaines, deputy head of the companion animals department at the RSPCA, said: “Many dogs are relinquished each year because they show separation-related behaviour. Some owners think that dogs showing anxious behaviour in response to separation are fine, and do not seek treatment for their pets.
“This research suggests that at least some of these dogs may have underlying negative emotional states, and owners are encouraged to seek treatment to enhance the welfare of their dogs and minimise the need to relinquish their pet. Some dogs may also be more prone to develop these behaviours, and should be re-homed with appropriate owners.”
- View Dogs showing separation-related behaviour exhibit a ‘pessimistic’ cognitive bias by Michael Mendl, Julie Brooks, Christine Basse, Oliver Burman, Elizabeth Paul, Emily Blackwell and Rachel Casey, published in Current Biology, October 12, 2010.