Dogs can have either an optimistic or a pessimistic view of the world, new research shows. The approach used in the research will have uses in assessing animal welfare generally, but also in assessing suitability of dogs for various working roles.
“This research is exciting because it measures positive and negative emotional states in dogs objectively and non-invasively (important for those concerned about animal welfare in research),” said Dr Melissa Starling, from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Veterinary Science.
Dr Starling has been working with Assistance Dogs Australia to investigate whether measuring optimism would assist in selecting dogs for training.
Dogs were taught to associate two different sounds (two octaves apart) with whether they would get the preferred reward of milk or instead get the same amount of water. Once the dogs learned the discrimination task, they were presented with ‘ambiguous’ tones.
If dogs responded after ambiguous tones, it showed that they expect good things will happen to them, and they are called ‘optimistic.’ They can show how optimistic they are by which tones they respond to. A very optimistic dog may even respond to tones that sound more like those played before water was offered.
“Of the dogs we tested we found more were optimistic than pessimistic but it is too early to say if that is true of the general dog population,” said Dr Starling.
“This research could help working dog trainers select dogs best suited to working roles. If we knew how optimistic or pessimistic the best candidates for a working role are, we could test dogs’ optimism early and identify good candidates for training for that role. A pessimistic dog that avoids risks would be better as a guide dog while an optimistic, persistent dog would be more suited to detecting drugs or explosives.”
Dr Starling talks more about her research in this video: