The Bowl Really IS Half-empty

One of the things I have always loved about dogs is their unbridled optimism. Many dogs, and certainly most golden retrievers, greet every stranger as a new best friend. And car-savvy dogs seem to just know that a car ride always leads to fun for dogs!

And then there’s Jana, my golden. She’s sure that getting in the car means that she is going to be stuck there for days and probably won’t even get dinner on time. She definitely struck me as a bowl-half-empty sort of gal early on. Are dogs like people in that regard — some optimistic, others not?

I was clearly not the only person wondering that. Now, a scientific study has determined that, indeed, dogs can be pessimists.

With Jana, I am sure it began the day she reached adulthood, or late adolescence — whatever age it was that I decided  that she no longer needed three puppy meals a day. Nope, like a true grown-up dog, Jana would have two meals a day. She was crushed when, despite several reminders from her, I failed to serve puppy lunch. I tried telling her that many, many dogs eat only once a day, but she wasn’t buying that. From her perspective, it’s been pretty much all downhill since then.

The pinnacle, or should I say, the nadir, of her existence might have occurred on a cross-country trip a couple of summers ago, when we spent what seemed like a week just crossing Texas. She heaved an I-might-as-well-be-dead sigh and threw herself across the console in between the two front seats — and refused to be consoled. Nothing budged her. Not the promise of walks and playtime, not even a snack. Getting into the console for  sunglasses or a pen required using two hands and a hefty push to lift the lid, dog and all, to gain access.

Jana’s travel companion, Wylie, a German shepherd, is a born optimist if there ever was one. But even his frequent expressions of excitement which could only be translated as  “There’s a place we could stop and play!” “Look, some grass! Let’s go play!” failed to rouse her. Jana refused to so much as lift her head to look out the window. When we got stuck staying at a none-too-clean La Quinta one night, she realized that there was something worse than 12 hours in the car. Even the people were reduced to foraging for dinner at Denny’s. Life was truly not worth living. (Not to worry — our stay at a wonderful French Quarter hotel in New Orleans a couple of days later revived her. She has been plodding along, finding half-empty bowls, ever since.)

Not surprisingly, the intrepid team of researchers who determined that dogs could be pessimists was British. If dogs anywhere would be doom-and-gloomy, stiff upper lip and all that, it would be British dogs, wouldn’t it? The team’s thesis was that separation anxiety behaviors, commonly seen in pet dogs — they estimate that as many as half of Britain’s pets dogs show these behaviors during their lives — could indicate a pessimistic outlook on life.

The dogs studied were first evaluated for their response to being left alone, specifically to determine whether they showed anxiety. Anxiety might be exhibited as vocalization, destructive behavior such as chewing, or inappropriate toileting in dogs who are known to be housebroken. Next, the dogs were taught that bowls on one side of a room always contained rewards, while bowls on the other side of the room never contained rewards.

The optimist/pessimist test, or, if you prefer, the happy dog test, came next. The bowls were placed in one of three ambiguous positions, between the reward and no-reward locations the dogs had been taught to recognize. Dogs who approached the bowl quickly were judged to be anticipating a food reward and thus optimistic; dogs who did not approach the bowls or approached slowly were judged to be pessimistic, i.e., not expecting a reward. Several tests were run for each dog, with the bowls in the reward, no-reward, and ambiguous locations. Each dog’s times for the three locations were charted and compared so that speedy dogs didn’t get higher marks for optimism simply because they had longer legs than other test subjects.

Wouldn’t you know it? Dogs who had demonstrated anxiety at being left alone also had lower happy-dog scores than the calmer dogs. The researchers concluded that separation anxiety might indicate a negative underlying mood. For dog owners and therapists, looking at it the other way around might be helpful — dogs with a naturally bleak outlook might be more likely to exhibit separation anxiety.

While the idea that dogs’ behavior is influenced by their emotions or mood is certainly not news to anyone who has lived with and closely observed dogs, it’s nice to have official confirmation. And for the families of dogs who show classic separation anxiety — I know of one dog who jumped out of a second-story window to get to her departing humans, and have seen astonishing feats of destruction wrought by other distraught paws (and teeth) — understanding the dog’s emotional state and feelings might be calming in those moments when the humans really want to throttle the dog.

The logical question is, though, what are you supposed to do with this information? I am not an advocate of doggy Prozac, and punishing a frightened or anxious dog is counterproductive. Anxious dogs need a tremendous amount of patience from their families, and, sadly, there is no quick fix. One happy effect of the current economic downturn, at least from the dogs’ perspective, is that so many more of us are available, at home, for several more hours each day; we’re also taking fewer dog-less vacations and enjoying less-frequent people’s nights out.

Behavior modification with a qualified trainer who uses positive methods is the best approach to resolving anxiety related behavior in your dog. Find a trainer in your area through the APDT or a local animal-friendly trainers group, such as Tampa Bay Animal Friendly Trainers.

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