New research from the University of Sydney shows that dogs can be either optimists or pessimists. This research will be largely beneficial to predicting which dogs will make the best service dogs, but it gives dog owners credibility that there is science behind something we already know.
Dogs were trained to touch a target after hearing tones two octaves apart. One of the tones would lead to a drink of milk as a reward and the other water. Once they understood that, other tones between the two octaves were presented to them. Researchers theorized that the dogs that persevered and kept hitting the target through the new tones were hopeful that one of them would lead to a reward. The pessimistic dogs grew distressed when those tones did not result in a milk reward and avoided repeating the task. The researchers also discovered that the pessimistic dogs were better in their training to be guide animals for people with disabilities because they were careful and anxious about taking risks. The persistent optimistic dog would do a better job as a search and rescue dog.
The Washington Post sought comment from Mark Bekoff, an author and professor emeritus at University of Colorado, who is hesitant to call the dogs that gave up as “pessimists.” He felt if the failure in the milk/water task would lead them to be less interested in unrelated reward-based experiments, that might lead to discovery of a pathologically pessimistic pup. He was intrigued by the attempt to assess the personality traits. “Especially in dogs who are abused early on, you definitely see animals who just really won’t work that hard to get love or affection, having failed before. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that there are optimistic and pessimistic dogs–and that you can change their behavior.”
For the full study, click here.