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Dogs Can Be Optimists or Pessimists

Researchers Say Dogs Exhibit Behavior Related to Separation Anxiety
WebMD Pet Health News

Oct. 13, 2010 -- The idiom “a dog’s life” suggests that pooches have it made when it comes to happiness, but new research indicates that the emotional states of dogs can be as varied as the moods of their owners.

Dogs can see their food bowls as half empty rather than half full, just as human pessimists see a glass of water as half empty instead of half full.

British researchers who tested separation reactions of dogs say they found that some dogs are more likely than others to become depressed and anxious when left alone, causing them to bark, scratch at doors, chew on furniture, and generally misbehave.

On the other hand, optimistic dogs are more likely to behave better and become more relaxed when left alone.

Mike Mendl, PhD, head of animal welfare and behavioral research at the University of Bristol, and colleagues, studied 24 dogs, males and females, that had been sent to two animal centers.

Each dog was tested beforehand for separation anxiety-related behaviors. A researcher played with each dog in an isolated room for 20 minutes.

The next day the dogs were taken back to their rooms and left alone for five minutes while video cameras recorded their behavior.

Some of the dogs barked, jumped on furniture, and scratched at the door, but the “optimistic” ones did not -- or didn’t do it as much.

To study optimistic or pessimistic tendencies, the dogs were trained so that when a bowl was placed at one location in a room, it contained food, but when put somewhere else, it didn’t. Then the bowls were placed at ambiguous locations between the positive and negative positions.

“Dogs that ran fast to these ambiguous locations as if expecting the positive food reward were classed as making relatively ‘optimistic’ decisions,” Mendl says in a news release. "Interestingly, these dogs tended to be the ones who also showed least anxiety-like behavior when left alone for a short time.”

Separation Anxiety

He says about half of dogs may at some point engage in behaviors related to separation anxiety, such as barking, scratching, or tearing things up when separated from owners.

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